“I don’t want to seem callous,” Pettigrew observed, “but to me it is nothing less than astonishing that any woman could be married to Barber for so many years and still want to save his life.” He glanced hastily at the detective and went on, “At all events, in the circumstances, I am extremely glad for her sake that she did.”
Tragedy at Law (1942) is supposed to be Cyril Hare’s best-known work. It is also the first book in his Francis Pettigrew series. However, I only came to this after four others of Hare’s books, so I already had some expectations that I hoped would be satisfied in Tragedy at Law.
Firstly, I was hoping for colourful, yet well-rounded characters that would drive the plot of the story.
I also hoped for Hare’s utterly charming tone of narration. I found in the books I had read before this – Tenant for Death, The Wind Blows Death, and Death Walks the Woods, and An English Murder – that Hare had a gift for the comical and understated comment that would often poke fun at the conventions of English middle-class society of his time.
Lastly, I hoped that Tragedy at Law would also contain one of Hare’s trademark twists that – as far as I have seen – usually makes use of a peculiarity occurring in English law.
Tragedy at Law did not disappoint my expectations in any of the above.
Pettigrew took his defeat with resignation, with apparent good humour even. He put up some semblance of a fight, but he knew when he was beaten, and it was not his habit to prolong the agony in hopeless cases. In this, perhaps, he was unwise. Clients are human, and derive much consolation from “a good fight”, however vain. Not a little of his lack of success was due to his mistaken belief that other people would be as reasonable as he was himself.
Tragedy at Law tells the story of a circuit judge who receives death threats while on circuit. This is an interesting concept in itself. What makes it even better is the fact that the judge in question is involved in an event that throws up a lot of questions about the status of judges, justice, the application of the law, and more. From the first pages, we follow discussions of morality and conscience, and as we get to know the cast of characters involved in this story – many of which are of the legal profession – I found that there is something very special about this book simply because we do not usually get this questioning of the justice system. Especially, not in a novel from 1942.
It is difficult to say more about the book without spoiling the plot. However, what also made the book stand out for me was that Hare treated his female characters with an appreciation that is also very rare in books of this time.
For example, we get to know a main character, Hilda, who described as having an excellent brain and excelling in her study of the law, and who was yet denied access to her profession as a barrister by the prejudice of her peers and the sexism prevalent at the time of writing.
Hilda Barber, in fact, was that rare being, a woman with a real talent for law. She had been, she told Derek, called to the Bar, but had never practised. The latter statement was true in the sense that like many other women barristers she had never succeeded in acquiring a practice. Without any exceptional influence behind her she had been unable to overcome the prejudice which has kept the Bar an essentially masculine profession. But for two years she had haunted the Temple, listened to every case of importance—as distinct from cases of mere notoriety—and studied assiduously in the library of her Inn. During this period she read as a pupil in the chambers of William Barber, then at the height of his practice as a junior. It was not long after her term of pupilage expired that Barber celebrated a double event by taking silk and marrying within the same month. It was currently rumoured that both of these important steps had been taken on the initiative of the lady. Certainly, from the professional point of view, he had no cause to regret either of them.
Yes, yes, I know, the description of “that rare being” is not great, but still, it is not often that you see an author spell out the “prejudice which has kept the Bar an essentially masculine profession“. I am not sure that I have ever seen in this in a Golden Age mystery.
If anything, my recent encounter with Michael Gilbert’s 1951 work Death Has Deep Roots had somewhat confirmed that the prejudice advanced by the legal profession against women was not only deep rooted still only a few years later, but Gilbert himself used it as such a commonly accepted view that he based part of his plot on it.
So, I found Hare’s offering very pleasantly surprising.
I really, really liked Tragedy at Law, even tho it dragged quite a bit. I had a hunch pretty early on – as soon as the first “attempt” happened – of who might end up being the culprit, but the why exactly and ultimate solution was exactly what I have come to expect from Hare, and why I really enjoy his books.
A word of warning, however: The legalese is strong in this one and it may help to have some knowledge of the English legal system. I have an interest in English case law and the court system and found this story to be an interesting insight into the old circuit system.
Even without familiarity with Hare’s legal background, I would have enjoyed the book immensely. What Hare’s books come down to – like so many of the best mysteries – is characters. When you’re able to get to know the characters, the environment they inhabit become secondary.
The actual solution made me laugh, and of course the nerd in me was delighted to find that a major part of the solution was still cited widely in years following the publication of Hare’s book. Tho of course, this was in no way connected to Tragedy at Law. It was simply that Hare actually included factual citations.
I’m sorry if this all sounds a bit obscure, but to say more would spoil the story and the final revelation.
“I suppose,” he said bitterly, as he dropped the fragments into the wastepaper basket, “I suppose that it is the first time on record that anyone has ever been driven to commit suicide by a quotation from the Law Reports.”
Francis Pettigrew Series:
Tragedy at Law – 4.5*
With a Bare Bodkin – tbc
When the Wind Blows (aka The Wind Blows Death) – 3.5*
Death Walks the Woods – 3*
Untimely Death – tbc
Other titles by Cyril Hare:
An English Murder – 4*
Tenant for Death (Inspector Mallett #1) – 3*
Death is No Sportsman (Inspector Mallett #2) – tbc
Suicide Excepted (Inspector Mallett #3) – tbc
Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare – tbc