Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

By Cyril Hare

First published: UK, Faber & Faber, 1942; US, Harcourt, 1943

Blurb (UK)

Hare - Tragedy at Law.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Detective story connoisseurs will be delighted to know that war has not put an end to Mr. Hare’s promising career of crime.  In Tragedy at Law he combines a very ingeniously planned murder with an admirable description of the adventures and misadventures of a judge of the High Court on Assize and his entourage.

Those who like their detective stories to be something more than a kind of crossword puzzle will already have added Cyril Hare to the small list of their favourite authors.  The best kind of detective story, we have always thought, is one which explains some particular part of the social order.  Miss Dorothy Sayers did this brilliantly in Murder Must Advertise; and Mr. Hare does it with similar success in the present volume.

We think this is perhaps the best story Mr. Hare has yet written and we recommend it with confidence equally to lawyers and laymen.

My review

Someone obviously agreed with Mr. Justice Barber’s statement that “the reckless motorist…is better out of this world,” for, having hit a man — but not killed him – Mr. Justice Barber began to receive anonymous death-threats, poisoned chocolates, and ominous parcels, and suffer midnight attacks and attempts on his life, culminating in his murder outside the Criminal Courts. Until he meets his demise, however, the reader is entertained by the background of the life led by a Circuit Judge, surrounded by ritual; enthralled by the amusing and vivid characters, deftly touched in with genuine sympathy (the story is to the fore without diminishing the impact of the detection); and bamboozled by an ingenious and complicated plot relying on an obscure legal point, disclosed by the disillusioned and disappointed lawyer Francis Pettigrew, a most unlikely, yet very human, (anti)-hero.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 11th April 1942):

That singular way lawyers have of leading a life apart enables Mr. Hare, who plainly knows it well, to create the excitement of giving secrets away.  Most people may know something about the antagonisms between Bench and Bar, the customs to be observed on circuit, the calm insistence that life is a game of chess (only more so), and the peculiar humour this view engenders.  In Tragedy at Law all such things are taken for granted in very intimate glimpses of the private life of a Judge of the High Court.  Law is not background alone; it is the breath of life to all persons concerned, and their sole attitude to everything that happens, including death.  In consequence, the mystery has this peculiar flavour—dry as Temple dust and yet somehow unctuous.  There is urbanity even in its suspense.


New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 13th June 1942):


Most detection is written to a formula, because human powers of invention are limited.  It is easier to write variations on an old theme than to think of a new one.  But on some rare occasion an author rises from the ruck with an original idea and towers above his fellows.  Mr. Cyril Hare now finds himself in this glorious solution.  The other books in this list will be forgotten in a twelvemonth [including Carr’s Seat of the Scornful, Christie’s Body in the Library, and Mitchell’s Laurels are Poison], but Tragedy at Law should be sure of appreciative readers for years to come.  The publishers compare the book to Murder Must Advertise, but, for a wonder, they err in understatement.  Though the style is less brilliant, the narrative is as smooth, vivid and sustained as that of Miss Sayers’ most famous work, and superior in finish.  I can never forget or forgive the garish interludes in Murder Must Adverties that presage Lord Peter’s dégringolande into the limbo of a schoolmarm’s daydream.  The two books are alike in the use made of special knowledge, and in the self-confidence and fluency produced by describing personal experiences.  Miss Sayers showed us the human mechanism behind the façade of a modern advertising agency.  Mr. Hare takes us behind the scenes of Justice, introducing us to the entourage of Sir William Barber, a High Court Judge on circuit.  This round of Assizes seems to resemble more than anything the tour of a repertory company.  Not only does the Judge travel everywhere with his own staff, clerk, Marshal, servants and, if available, wife, who, like theatrical dressers, are there to equip him to play his part on the bench.  But the other actors in the legal dramas, the barristers attached to the Circuit, are necessarily the same and have to travel round with the Judge.  Only the audiences, the juries and criminals, are local inhabitants.  Such a natural stage has never before, as far as I know, been employed for a detective novel until Mr. Hare came along and made it his own.  There is an excellent plot in Tragedy at Law, but it is unfortunately impossible even to outline for fear of betraying its secret subtlety.  The characters are so real as to be almost alarming.  Rebarbative Mr. Justice Barber himself, his shrewd, attractive wife, his peculiar clerk, his young, inexperienced Marshal, and above all, Pettigrew, an unsuccessful barrister on the circuit, are all drawn to the life.