Sunday, 8 January 2012

Penguin no. 897: Tragedy at Law
by Cyril Hare

As for the Judge, the realization of the curious peril in which his professional career stood had produced a curious reaction. As though determined in any event to go down with his colours flying, he assumed a manner that was an exaggeration - almost a caricature - of his every-day self. Never had he been so dignified, so pompous, so loftily condescending to the junior Bar, so icily critical of the leaders. His allocutions to convicted prisoners were longer than ever and, as the prisoners found to their cost, were followed by sentences proportionately long. The whole system of English justice depends upon the immunity and security of those who administer it. A psychologist would have observed with interest the effects of threatening one of these with his loss of position.

Although it has all the conventional components of murder, suspects, a police investigation, and a solution, Tragedy at Law is an unusual detective novel in that the focus of the plot is neither the murder, nor the search for the murderer. These occur only at the very end, and are dealt with briefly, providing the conclusion to the main story, a detailed portrayal of the work of the Court of Assizes, told as a fictional account of an eventful two month circuit in the south of England during the early years of the Second World War.

The story is not of those who are summoned to appear before the court, but of those who travel with it: the Judge, his wife, his clerk, marshal, and butler, and others who work at the assizes, such as the unsuccessful barrister Francis Pettigrew. Cyril Hare had toured as Judge's Marshal during World War II, and many of the observations in this story are given from the perspective of a newly recruited marshal, Derek Marshall. He details the hierarchy, rivalries and resentments amongst this group of individuals constrained to spend so much time together, and contrasts the magnificence of the ceremony which accompanies the court's progress, with the tedium of the work, and the varying levels of comfort of the lodgings.

It is a portrait of a vanished world. Perhaps the judge was no longer the King's representative dispensing the King's justice, but the traditions from those earlier times continued. The judge setting out on the circuit here, the Honourable Sir William Barber, is vexed that the pageantry which marks the start of the circuit is necessarily curtailed on account of the war. And yet the ceremony itself was baffling from a modern perspective. For whom was it held, and why would anyone be interested or entertained? The world described is so foreign, and yet so recent.

Central to much that occurs during the story is the belief expressed in the penultimate sentence of the paragraph quoted above. It was difficult to have any sympathy for this viewpoint, which essentially maintained that judges should not be held accountable for the very transgressions they punish in others. Misdemeanours by the judge are to be hushed up: he may not be morally superior to those he sits in judgement upon, but it is suggested that the stability of the system may require that he is believed to be so, appearance being more important than reality. On the first evening of the circuit the judge drinks too much, insists on driving, collides with a pedestrian on the way home, and then is found to lacking the necessary insurance. These are not trivial offences: it is shown elsewhere that a similar misdemeanour would mean time in prison for an ordinary citizen. And yet everyone involved colludes to keep it quiet. It is assumed the judge will compensate the victim and the matter will be forgotten. He may then continue judging personal injury cases, and issuing punishments to those no less guilty than himself.

Instead it leaves him vulnerable and powerless, with his authority diminished. There is no incentive for the victim to settle, and he is no longer able to keep his staff in check: they all know his secret, and he is desperate that it will spread no further. He is also subjected to threats from someone who chooses to remain anonymous, but who also seems to know what he has done. It is interesting to speculate on the view of the author: Francis Pettigrew supports the need for silence; the young and inexperienced marshal alone questions the double standard. All that follows results from the judge's inability to keep the matter quiet, but this implies that it also follows from the attempt to do so. This is a portrayal of a pompous judge, who behaves badly and creates enemies, but then perhaps he behaves this way because with the immunity he is afforded he is not constrained to behave any better?

The murder and its investigation are covered in the final 30 pages, and it was a simple matter to guess the murderer's identity: no other suspect seemed plausible. The reason for the murder is not so easily identified, and as with That Yew Tree's Shade, Pettigrew is the outsider who steps in at the last moment to identify the motive and explain the crime. However, the Pettigrew presented here is a much more bitter man, less reconciled to his drifting career and his lack of success. With its portrayal of this unfamiliar world and its analysis of the motivations influencing human behaviour, this is a far more complex story than the others I have read by Cyril Hare. It was this complexity, rather than the crime and its solution, which made the story interesting.

Also by Cyril Hare:
Penguin no. 1007: With a Bare Bodkin
Penguin no. 1064: That Yew Tree's Shade


  1. I think this is indeed an interesting portrait of a "lost world." My problem with it was I disliked so many of the people! This is definitely his most complex book as a pure novel, I think--really more a crime novel in the modern sense.

  2. Hi Curt,

    You're right - the characters are not appealing, with the Judge perhaps the worst of them, as he occupies a respected position while behaving so appallingly, and with his success built on the unacknowledged efforts of others. It was that aspect that was so distracting from the plot concerning the murder - this sense that perhaps I was meant to feel sorry for this man who was responsible for his own demise, and didn't learn anything from the experience.

  3. Yes, I had the exact same feeling. You hit the nail on the head.

  4. I like the premise of this book - of it focusing on the judge and the staff of the courts rather than on the solving of a crime. Human nature is much more of a puzzle than murder sometimes...

  5. I think this book was a bold departure from the commonplace, and the portrait of Pettigrew as a reluctant detective is compelling. The later books featuring Pettigrew are well written, and generally mellower in tone, but perhaps less compelling - inevitable, I guess, when turning a one-off character into a series sleuth.



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