That Yew Tree’s Shade

By Cyril Hare

When I gave Zeborah, our friend from New Zealand, a tour of Deventer on the occasion of her visit to us, we did not neglect to visit a few of the dozen or so second-hand bookshops that Deventer can count among its blessings. In one of those, I found The Yew Tree’s Shade, a detective novel by Judge Cyril Hare.

The author’s biography on the back flap of the Penguin paperback (a remark of Rebecca’s today made me wonder when Penguin Putnam is going to sue Linus Torvalds for the misappropriation of their logo) made me buy the book immediately. Anyone who took a ‘First’ (notice the quotes) in History is someone whose stuff I might well like.

The author has served as a Country Court Judge, and this experience shows up well. It’s almost talking shop; but then the chapter that’s all too obviously written from personal, and quite bitter, too, experience turns out to contain essential information about the dramatis personae.

Set shortly after the second world war, this book puts the post-war poverty in Britain, with rationing, housing shortage(1) and attendant crimes in a sharp light. It’s a detective, meaning someone has to die, and someone has to have committed the crime. The plot is puzzling, and admirably constructed. Most of the characters are compelling and believable. If there’s one character that stretches the suspension of disbelief it’s the
young Etonian Godfrey, who spends his Easter holidays with his dissolute mother taking rubbings of brasses in parish churches, reads the Times Literary Supplement in bed, and is altogether so much of a prig that he is shocked when the German maid tells him an improper story in exchange for a proper one of his.

On the other hand, I am quite ready that Godfrey is the author as a young man; the Times Literary Supplement bit where Godfrey reads everything with a voracity that is described as being typical of a young mind; I think the author means his own young mind, because I’ve known plenty of young minds not nearly as voracious. Of course, when I was a teenager, I read all the non-fiction I could get my hands on, subject not important as long as it wasn’t about soccer…

The story is one that works; the puzzle is thoroughly constructed, the setting is thoroughly believable and interesting, a small village that is a perfect antidote to Miss Marple’s Something in the Whatnot, and I want to read more about Mr. Pettigrew. An author to collect. He turns an admirable phrase.

1) A situation not different in the Netherlands after the second world war. Our previous house was a small Dutch ‘arbeidershuisje’, probably comparable to an council estate cottage, only privately built, and when we moved in our neighbor told us the previous inhabitants sublet the front room to a family with children. They lived in the back room with kitchen themselves: the attic rooms were sublet, too.