From the 12thcentury the Courts of Assize, commonly known as the Assizes, dispensed justice to provincial towns throughout Britain. Presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts based in London, the Assizes were held twice-yearly in the main county towns. Under normal conditions the court moves from town to town (known as the circuit) dispensing justice with little to no fuss. The Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, a judge on the high court, and his staff have embarked upon the circuit of the Southern Assizes. When he receives an anonymous note warning “your sins will find you out.” he dismisses it as unimportant. Then he commits a crime of his own by drinking, driving, and hitting a pedestrian. In order to preserve the judge’s reputation, those involved collude to suppress the incident. But it seems someone outside the judge’s circle knows, and as the circuit progresses from town to town, the previous threats become more menacing and soon spiral into violence.
When Kate @ crossexamingcrime saw that I was reading Tragedy at Law she said she was looking forward to seeing what I thought of it because, “it is a bit of a marmite read”. I was of course puzzled, but the Cambridge Dictionary came to my rescue. A marmite is, in addition to a spread on toast, “something or someone that some people like very much and other people dislike very strongly.” Now, having read several of the reviews by my fellow bloggers, I would have to agree with her. So, what did I think?
This is more than the tale of a judge’s legal tour through the countryside of Britain. It is an unusual mystery novel in that it doesn’t start with a murder, rather it ends with a murder. And in between lurks an individual, controlling the narrative by exploiting events, engineering incidents, and manipulating individuals until the time is right to strike. The motive may seem indiscernible, but Hare very subtly inserted it quite early on in the book, you just have to remember it. I had that moment where you say to yourself “I know what this means…where did I see that before?” Also, luckily for me, I take copious notes while I’m reading.
Hare’s flare for characterization is apparent and he has created well drawn and interesting characters. The story is told mostly from the view of Derek Marshall, the newest member of the judge’s staff. Derek is an earnest, likable young man, and an idealist, placed in situations where he often sees his principles tested. Judge Barber (known variously as The Barber, The Shaver, and Father William) is a self-important man who, much to his detriment, is unable to control any of the events, or people in his life. Then there is Lady Barber (Hilda), the judge’s wife, younger than the judge, she is a lawyer in her own right. She has given everything, and will do anything, to see her husband advance. And Francis Pettigrew, a mildly cynical, slightly worn down barrister. Once a rival for Hilda’s affections, he is now a favorite target of the judge’s attacks.
The story is elegantly written with arch and witty dialogue – “Barber’s habit of concealing things from his wife was as instinctive as that of the dog who hides bones under a sofa cushion, and about as effective.” It is also very well paced. I felt that with each incident, Hare artfully ramped up the tension, especially at the end, when everything speeds up to a culmination of events, and a solution packed into 30 pages.
I really enjoyed Tragedy at Law, but is it my favorite Hare? No it isn’t. That spot goes to An English Murder. But it comes in at a very close second.
My Judgement: 5/5