HMR: Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

Article published on November 19, 2015.

HMR is our Has Mandy Read . . . ? strand wherein we try to find books she hasn’t read (difficult) and then challenge her to finish them and write a review.

I don’t generally read detective stories, and as the whole point of this column is to get me to read books that are new to me, I thought I’d give this one a go. It’s a classical detective story from the Golden Age of detective fiction, all the ingredients are there; a central mystery, usually a murder; a closed circle of suspects with opportunity and motive; a detective; and a conclusion which readers should be able to arrive at by themselves from clues inserted throughout the novel. This latter aspect may mean why the genre has never appealed to me. I’m not very good at working things out!

Cyril Hare was very much a part of this Golden Age and deserves to be better remembered if this one is anything to go by. Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, 1900-1958, a barrister and County Court judge, and he made use of his expert knowledge of the law to good effect in his novels.

Tragedy at Law is set in 1942. We accompany the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, one of the Justices of the King’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice as he makes his way through the towns of the Southern Circuit. These days the Crown Court has a number of permanent premises, but back then judges and their retinues went from one assize court to another, trying the cases that had accumulated. This aspect of legal history I found particularly interesting in itself. The retinue includes his wife Hilda, also a barrister and very much as good a one as he is. It’s obvious from the beginning that Judge Barber is an intended victim as he at first gets a threatening anonymous letter and things go from bad to worse. Someone has it in for him.

I really enjoyed this little gem. It’s elegantly and fluently written, well-plotted (and certainly kept me guessing ’til the end). It’s an old-fashioned tale and reflects the attitudes of the day, and describes a world gone for ever, but the characters are more or less believable, and the incidents likewise. There are a suitable number of subplots and red herrings, fascinating insights into legal hierarchies and rivalries, glimpses into an established world that has gone for ever, and all in all a light but very entertaining read.

My thanks to Ruth Ginarlis for introducing me to – and lending – this highly recommended little book.

Mandy Jenkinson

Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

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