Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

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

Prior Rulings: Bev @ My Readers Block, The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery, Martin @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name?The Grandest Game in the World

8 thoughts on “Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

  1. I’m fascinated by the idea of you taking notes — and copious ones, at that – while you read. I’ve often wondered if I might be able to do it myself, but I find that the tendency to get in one more chapter, and so overwrite what my impressions may have been 15 pages earlier, tends to overcome me.

    And the one time I did sit down at the end of each chapter and write out my thoughts — for a spoiler-filled post on Fog of Doubt (1952) by Christianna Brand — it was a book I very much did not enjoy.

    Out of interest, what do you do with your notes when you’ve finished the book?

    1. Oh, I keep them. They’re in a notebook that’s with me when I read. I started because I found that I would think of an idea, or want to quote from a book, then when it came time to write my review wasted time hunting for it. Sometimes the notes are more of a rough draft of the review. I’m not a writer, and sometimes struggle with what I want to say, or how I want to say it so it’s a life saver.

      What I find fascinating are the reviews written by you and others, such as Kate, John Norris, Curt, TomCat. The insights, the depth of knowledge, and the obvious love you have for your subject shines through.

      1. Oh, hush — you’re very kind, but honestly we’re all just massive nerds who are delighted at being able to share in this kind of thing. John Norris in particular, I agree, has a real talent for drawing out some fabulous ideas and links in his reviews; one of these days, I hope to have the level of insight that John possesses.

        I bought a load of secondhand books a few years back which came with probably A6-sized pages in the front whereon the previous owner had written down a bunch of thoughts and ideas about the books…though whether while reading or afterwards I couldn’t say. But they make for fascinating reading, and it was in part this that made me start thinking about notes and note-making in the first place. My compromise is a bunch of sticky “highlighter” notes — like miniature post-its — that I use to tag anything I either might want to quote later or that I hope might jump-start an idea or impression I had at that point. About 80% of the time I’m able to remember, but sometimes I find myself turning to a bookmarked line and thinking “Uh, and…?” 😀

      2. I love finding books with notes by previous readers. I feel as Helene Hanff did (84, Charing Cross Road) “I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.”

        I also tried the yellow sticky thing but found that something of a pain…stickies everywhere!

    2. Also the pain you felt in writing the Brand review came through loud and clear…as did your opinion. It was rather fun to read and watch your roller coaster ride.

      1. The experience of stopping after every chapter and writing 200 words on my thoughts at that point left me feeling rather confused — after a while, it became something of a blur what was my surmise and what was the actual book. It’s a bit like reading The Floating Admiral and checking each solution at the end of that author’s chapter — fun, but dude doesn’t it ever get mixed up quickly…!

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