Posted: October 23, 2014 in Agatha Christie, England, Golden Age of detective fiction, Legal Eagles, review

cyril hareI decided to read Tragedy At Law firstly because it was recommended by Martin Edwards at his brilliant blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Martin gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction’ and his blog is always a great read. 

Also I have been reading some Agatha Christie as sheer escapism from more modern crime fiction that deals with such serious subjects as the aftermath of the Algerian War, or racism in the American South, or the current problems of terrorism and kidnapping. Therefore over the next few months, all being well, I shall be reading several books from the period of the Golden Age of the English Detective novel, and investigating whether they have any interest for the modern reader. 

Tragedy At Law was published in 1942, it is set in late 1939 and the action runs into 1940 during the period known in Britain as the Phoney War. There was actually nothing phoney about it if you happened to live in Warsaw, Copenhagen or Oslo, but that is what it is called in history books.

Distinguished lawyer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark wrote Tragedy At Law under the pseudonym Cyril Hare. He was educated at Rugby and Oxford and was a member of the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1924. He practised as a barrister up the the Second World War  and therefore had a thorough knowledge of the procedures about which he wrote with such skill.

” No trumpeteers!” said his Lordship in a tome of melancholy and slightly peevish disapproval. …………

War with all its horrors was let loose upon the earth and His Majesty’s Judge must in consequence creep into his car with no more ceremony than an ambassador or an archbishop. Chamberlain had flown to Godesberg and Munich pleaded for them, but in vain. Hitler would have none of them. The trumpeters must go.

The book tells the story of pompous the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, a High Court Judge, on his circuit round the Assize Courts in the South of England, a circuit through fictional towns. He is accompanied on his travels by a group of acolytes, Beamish the Judge’s Clerk, the Judge’s Marshal, Derek Marshall, “Marshall by name and marshal by occupation”, the Judge’s Butler and the Marshal’s Man.

And after the Judge receives threatening letters he is joined by his attractive wife, Lady Hilda, whose takes upon herself the task of protecting her husband, aided by Derek. Unfortunately the Judge has already blotted his copybook by driving while inebriated and without a valid licence or insurance, and in the process having a motor accident that involved damaging the hand of a distinguished concert pianist. So he is concerned about both physical, legal and financial threats to his and his wife’s comfortable existence.

Tragedy At Law is a beautifully written portrait of the legal system in wartime England affected at that stage by only minor inconveniences. The quaint Ruritanian world of Britain’s class system is seen to function with all the pomp and circumstance it can muster.  The story has some great characters, biting sarcasm, humour and gradually builds tension to an interesting climax. It is a slow almost pedestrian progress but has charm and even though it appears outdated has a few interesting comments about society and the almost revolutionary concept of State legal aid. The narrative is enhanced by accounts of various legal cases and of the struggling career path of barrister Francis Pettigrew, who plays a small but vital part in the action. 

Tragedy At Law is a pleasant amusing read, but then for the wealthy and the well off middle class England in the Golden Age of the Detective novel was a pleasant place to live.

To Derek Marshall, experiencing his first contact with the criminal law, it was an august, a thrilling moment………….

” Let Horace Sidney Atkins surrender!” piped the Clerk.

A meek, middle-aged man in a grey flannel suit climbed into the dock, blinked nervously at the magnificence that his wrong-doing had somehow collected together, and pleaded guilty to the crime of bigamy.

Markhampton Assizes was under way at last.   

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – I couldn’t possibly agree with you more about Martin’s excellent blog. I learn with every visit. And thanks for the reminder of how terrific classic crime fiction can be. As you say, it is a pleasant alternative to some of the more modern crime fiction, however well that may be written.

  2. I re-read this one fairly recently, and I enjoyed it very much, as much for its picture of life as for the murder mystery.

  3. Thanks very much for the kind words about my blog – glad you enjoy it. And I’m very glad too that you enjoyed this book. Whilst I think it’s Hare’s best, the others are all good, especially Suicide Excepted and An English Murder.

  4. Philip Amos says:

    Opinion is nigh unanimous that Tragedy at Law is Hare’s finest work, as well as singularly fine in its depiction of the legal system of the time as seen from within. My favourite of his novels, however, is When the Wind Blows, a very clever title indeed, botched in the US, where it was re-titled The Wind Blows Death. Hare was a music lover and enthusiastic member of an amateur orchestra, precisely the context of this opus, if I may be excused the pun. Rather a long time ago, I used to write comments here and there begging crime writers to keep away from classical music unless they really — REALLY — knew of what they wrote, even in a passing mention. I recall Dick Francis and John Harvey each writing one sentence to do with classical music and in consequence making fools of themselves. But a very few did know of what they wrote — the late Robert Barnard in Death on the High C’s was one — and of these I think Hare was the most successful in putting it at the very core of a plot, and one of the cleverest plots I’ve come across. I do so recommend it. And I agree wholly, Norman — Martin’s blog is especially valuable in reminding readers of crime novelists who should be much more remembered than they are — and their works reprinted. Ngaio Marsh is not forgotten, though surely attention to her output has been fading, so I was happy indeed when Harper started to republish all her novels in a series of omnibus editions. I just puzzled as to why they call it the “Diamond Anniversary Collection 1934-2009”. A puzzle to be solved there: whose anniversary, because it’s certainly not Dame Ngaio’s.

  5. Bill Selnes says:

    Norman: Thanks for an interesting review.

    I thought the book was alright though it plodded at times for me.

    I was fascinated by the pomp and ceremony of the King’s Bench Court of that era. In and out of court there was constant ritual. It is totally foreign to my experiences in the courts of Canada since 1975.

  6. Norman Price says:

    Margot, I think they banned Martin from the quiz night at Crime Fest as his team was always winning!

    Moira, I liked the picture of life as well and I don’t think much had changed by the 1950s. I remember being in hospital in the late 1950s and the consultants and matron were treated like ambassadors and archbishops, or even higher.

    Thanks Martin, you are partially responsible for my TBR mountain getting larger.

    Philip, when I lived in London I was a bit of a classical music bore. Absolutely no musical ability but an interest mainly in opera, but now I am reduced in energy, time and finances I have to rely on the radio. I try and match my music to the book I am reading, easy with Camilleri and De Giovanni.
    Some of the forgotten authors mentioned by Martin have been helped by television. Ngaio Marsh and the Inspector Alleyn series, and Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley Mysteries, which has the most ludicrous casting [Diana Rigg as Mrs Bradley] since John Wayne played Genghis Khan.

    Bill thanks, I agree it was rather plodding and the ceremony is outdated. Your Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers may have all the ceremonial regalia, but he did a fantastic job in saving the MPs from the gunman yesterday. The tragic death of Nathan Cirillo seems even more devastating because he was guarding the war memorial, and we appreciate that Canada contributed so much to our victory in both world wars. I am now reading Paul Goldstein’s Havana Requiem, and the story has made a very promising and interesting start.

    • Bill Selnes says:

      Norman: Thanks for the kind words. Canadians are proud of Kevin Vickers. The senseless death of Corporal Crillo will I expect harden our nation’s position against extremists wherever they are in the world. I think you will find Havana Requiem an interesting book.

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