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Tragedy at Law (1942)

by Cyril Hare

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3041166,298 (3.84)42
A classic mystery from one of the best-loved and most influential English Golden Age crime writers.
  1. 00
    Suicide Excepted by Cyril Hare (PeasantsCaptain)
    PeasantsCaptain: Both these mysteries (Suicide Excepted; Tragedy at Law)are still first class reads and come from the pen of a writer whose life in the Law gave him an expert viewpoint. He also wrote uncommonly well.

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» See also 42 mentions

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Great old mystery! So glad I came across the title when reading Time to Be In Earnest by PD James. It seems Ms James sent her first manuscript to an agent. The agent was at lunch soon after reading the book when someone lamented the passing of Cyril Hare. She was dining with the director of Faber & Faber who said they would have to find an author to replace Mr Hare on their list. The agent offered PD James first novel as a possible candidate and it was accepted. In telling the story (I hope I got it right.) Ms James recommended this book. I had read An English Murder by Cyril Hare and enjoyed it. (That one came up in a Guardian article of the Top Ten Golden Age Detective stories.) I will look for more by him. Good writer, very creative, good characters. ( )
  njcur | Jul 6, 2021 |
I was informed this was a classic--it is not. But it is still a very readable, very British, and very overlong story of a circuit judge, back in the days when a circuit was really a circuit and moved from town to town, his much younger wife, and the other members of the traveling court who must confront a series of threats against the judge. Some of the characters are memorable, and the descriptions of the various towns and accommodations are somewhat amusing. The plot moves at a snail's pace, with lots of digressions which in the end do have a bit to do with the outcome. The book would benefit from having a more focused point of view, instead of being narrated from so many perspectives. Most readers will probably guess the culprit, though probably not the motivation, unless they are a scholar of British law--assuming the law Hare speaks of is in fact real. I would have to have a lot of time on my hands to venture into another of the author's books anytime soon. ( )
  datrappert | Aug 11, 2020 |
My first job after graduating from university saw me joining the Civil Service (for the first of three separate careers as humble functionary), and being assigned to Bloomsbury Tax Office. Despite its name, the office was neither situated in, nor presided over, Bloomsbury. Instead, it was located in a particularly shabby office on the corner of Euston Road and Melton Street (reminiscent of one of the more rundown buildings that housed the peripheral branches of the intelligence services in John le Carré’s books) and covered the Inns of Court. As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of its taxpayers were either barristers or solicitors, spanning both the knights of the legal profession in the form of immensely successful QCs whose exploits featured regularly in the Times Law Reports, and also the waifs and strays of the Bar, perpetually struggling to survive from one dock brief to the next, often going months without ever seeing the inside of a court, or receiving even a sniff of a client. I found the traditions of the Bar and its archaic working practices mystifying, yet also utterly captivating, and I have nurtured a fascination for them ever since, and have always loved any literature that touches on the intricacies and vagaries of the legal world.

This book sates that appetite comprehensively, offering a glorious perspective on the pomposities of the Southern Assize Court Circuit. Set in October 1939, as the country gradually subsided into war but before the subsequent privations became apparent, this novel tells of the tribulations of Frank Pettigrew, a down-at-heel barrister (perhaps an early forerunner of John Mortimer's Rumpole) and Mr Justice Barber. Shrouded in pomposity, as in an armour of triple steel, the Judge stumbles through the proceedings, dependent upon the ministrations of his youthful and far more intelligent wife to preserve him from embarrassment. To add a little savour the reader subsequently discovers that before she married the Judge Lady Barber had previously been engaged to Pettigrew.

However, Lady Barber is not on hand to prevent her husband from deciding to drive home after a lawyers' mess dinner in the blackout and knocking over a stranger who suffers damage to his hand and may have to lose a finger. Distressing enough for anyone, this injury is particularly awkward for the victim as he is a fêted classical pianist. Meanwhile the Judge has been receiving threatening but anonymous letters.

The pianist consults his own lawyers who threaten to sue the Judge if a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached out of court. This would, of course, signal the end of his career on the Bench. With all these elements Cyril Hare concocts a fairly heady brew, which eventually culminates with the murder of the Judge outside the Central Criminal Court. Hare, himself a successful barrister, manages his plot masterfully, with a deft lightness of touch. One feels great empathy for Pettigrew, and shudders at the occasional loathsomeness of Barber.

This blend of traditional whodunit and ‘legal procedural’ is an all round success and reads as well today as it did on its original publication more than seventy years ago. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Aug 27, 2018 |
Very clever & I like the character of Francis Pettigrew who is introduced in this book. ( )
  leslie.98 | Apr 9, 2018 |
Spoiler Warning: This is one story I always remember for its motive which turns on an odd point of law: in English law at the time, the victim of an accident could sue the estate of a dead person, but only within six months of the accident. A man is involved in an accident and liable to be sued for ruinous damages. He keeps trying to delay trial and once he has managed to delay it for 6 months, his wife murders him, because he if alive could still be sued but his wife as his heir could not. Francis Pettigrew the lawyer and amateur detective simply sends the wife the reference to the relevant decision in the law reports, and she commits suicide.The story is very clever but rather depressing as some of it is told from the POV (though 3rd person) of the rather sadly feeble victim. ( )
  antiquary | May 11, 2015 |
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'No trumpeters!' said his Lordship in a tone of melancholy and slightly peevish disapproval.
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In a well-conducted world - let it be repeated - all motorists without exception, but particularly Judges of the High Court, renew their driving licenses when they expire. Further, well before the due season, they take advantage of the reminders which their insurance companies are good enough to send them and provide themselves with the certificate required by the Road Traffic Acts, 1930 to 1936. The fact that from time to time they carelessly forget to do so, and thereby commit quite a number of distinct and separate offences, only goes to prove once more how far from perfectly conducted the actual world is. The fact that even Judges of the High Court are not immune from lapses of memory is perhaps an argument in favour of the proposition that in a well-conducted world they would not be allowed to drive motor-cars at all.
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A classic mystery from one of the best-loved and most influential English Golden Age crime writers.

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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 explores some particular part of the social scene. 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.
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