RogerBW's Blog

Tragedy at Law, Cyril Hare 17 May 2020

1942 mystery, first in the series centred on Francis Pettigrew, a not-terribly-successful barrister. The anonymous letters arriving for the High Court Judge while he's out on circuit are obviously the work of a lunatic; the poisoned box of chocolates is less easily dismissed.

That said, though, the actual murder doesn't happen until nearly the end of the book – though there are plenty of near misses – and it's unfortunate that the narrative largely lacks sympathetic characters. Everyone, Pettigrew most certainly not excepted, is portrayed as quite remarkably stupid the instant they step outside their areas of expertise (if any).

On the other hand, the detail of the business of a circuit judge is well-observed and rather fascinating (Hare, or rather Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, worked as a judge's marshal at about this time). It's not hurt by being set during the Phoney War, so the normal routines are disrupted by the advent of rationing and the arrival of unreasonable numbers of Canadian soldiers.

But the fact remained, odious and inescapable. There were no trumpeters. 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 and pleaded for them, but in vain. Hitler would have none of them. The trumpeters must go.

To be sure of the solution to the mystery takes knowledge of quite a fine legal point, in a way that reminded me of Unnatural Death though the detail is quite different. On the other hand, picking the right murderer by other means isn't much of a challenge.

"For sixpence you can get at any bookshop in the city a local handbook with a complete plan of the building, showing all the principal rooms, including, of course, the Judge's lodgings. That's because this is an Ancient Monument. All I can say is, Ancient Monuments  are all very well in their proper places, which is museums, but they have no call to put Judges in them and expect the police to guard them. If you'll excuse my saying so, my lord."

The book drags a little, but I at least found the period detail quite well able to compensate for the unpleasantness of the people.

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