“He had time for a glimpse only, but it was enough. As in a nightmare, he realised that once more there was a dead man on Bolter’s Tussock.”
This book was one of the great charity shop finds and never having come across Cyril Hare before it was a combination of the title and the cover that influenced the decision to part with £1.40. That plus the sign that publisher Faber & Faber had backed it by printed a version of the story in 2008, 51 years after it first appeared in print.
What you can gather from Hare is that he knew his law and his main character Francis Pettigrew is a retired law man and the book feels like it has moved from firm ground to rock solid concrete when you reach the court scenes.
In one main respect the story both intrigues but fails to deliver satisfaction. At the heart of the thriller is the idea that as a young man Pettigrew stumbled across a dead body in a remote spot and after his pony bolted and he managed to get home he never said anything about it. That source of regret has clearly stayed with him so when it happens again he faces the challenge of doing things properly.
Except he dodges it really and relying on the more official efforts of a retired policeman who is a friend he manages to take a back seat as the investigation carries on around him. That investigation once the dead body reappears on Tuesday morning focuses on the timing of the death. There is an inheritance at stake and the dead man stands to lose out if it can be proved that he died before he came into his money.
At that point the action, that is perhaps not the right word, moves to the court room. Where a modern reader perhaps misses out on fully understanding why Pettigrew acts the way he does is because society has changed so much in the last 50 years. The moments when he keeps his own counsel often seem to be mystifingly over cautious but perhaps back then people simply didn’t speak out.
Add to that ‘the how do you do sir?’ and the quaint idea that a coach and a couple of cars signifies rush hour on a road and maybe the way to get the best out of this book is not just to see it as a thriller but also as a way of walking back into a past. A time when people were trying to forget the horrors of a decade earlier and when life was that bit more ‘gentle’ than it is today.