Tragedy At Law by Cyril Hare

Tragedy At LawIn the early days of the war, High Court judges would perform a circuit, visiting towns to dispense judgment on all manner of cases. Justice Barber is one such judge, accompanied by his wife and various clerks. He initially dismisses the death threats that he receives, but when they turn into tangible threats on his life, it seems that someone has murder on their mind. But they don’t seem to be very good at it… yet.

Cyril Hare aka Alfred Gordon Clark was a member of such a circuit during the Second World War, and used his experiences to create the background for this, his most famous novel – out of a total of ten. There is much love for it amongst my fellow bloggers – for example at Do You Write Under Your Own Name, A Penguin A Week and Past Offences. It’s also one of the CWA top 100.

Long term readers will be able to see where I’m going with this…

OK, first of all, be wary of blurbs for this one. The detective in question is Inspector Mallett, but most blurbs and reviews name another character, who apparently returns in later books. It’s probably best not knowing who that is  as he’s also one of the main suspects in the narrative. And there aren’t that many of them in the first place.

Right, so what’s wrong with this? The background of life on the road is fascinating, I’ll admit that, and it starts off promisingly enough. Then is seems to go round in circles for a while before remembering that it’s trying to be a detective story and introducing a new development. And I’m being purposely vague here, as some events happen very late in the narrative, and I’d hate for those to be spoiled. I found it hard to read more than a couple of chapters at a time – it’s possible that the more legally-minded will see more in the opening two-thirds of the book, but I was itching for them to get on with it.

And, to paraphrase myself from above, long term readers will be able to see where Hare is going with all this. Not sure I’ve seen a more obvious villain who was supposed to be cleverly hidden. If this was the first mystery that I’ve ever read, I might have been fooled. Although I missed the motive completely – probably the law degree that I don’t have not helping.

So, if you’ve a fascination for the legal system of the past, then do check this out. If you’re after a decent detective story, then move along. There’s nothing to see here.


  1. You made several good points here. Seasoned crime fiction readers may have an entirely different take on a book than a reader new to mysteries. And, one problem with reading this book if you have read other books by the same author is that you have some foreknowledge of some of the characters. I did see the review at Past Offences, right before yours. Is there a reason this is so popular right now?


    • Not sure about the popularity – this has been sitting on my Kindle for absolutely ages. I’m sure that a blog review brought it to my attention, but I’m not sure which. Maybe someone recommended it to me… Anyway it fitted with my Golden Age month, so I thought it was about time.


    • (I just had it on my shelf – must just be coincidence)

      I came to a different conclusion in my review (thanks for the link). I’m now anxious that I give away the same thing that the blurbs do.

      Puzzle-wise, you’re dead right about the suspects. Most of the small circle that are presented are obviously not in the frame, and the guilty party is fairly hard to miss.

      I guess the real mystery is ‘why’. Not having a law degree is no impediment if a previous reader has underlined some key sentences…

      Overall, it was the atmosphere and the characters that won me over.


  2. I had read this book long ago and as far as I remembered, I had enjoyed it. Hence, after reading your negative comments, I decided to read it again. I still enjoyed it.
    It should be noted that it is not only a detective story, but also a humorous and satirical depiction of the judicial system (especially the Circuit life) prevailing at that time. If one does not like this sort of thing, he may find the book slow-paced and boring. However, the pace picks up during the latter half of the book, and towards the end it definitely becomes a page-turner.
    As a detective story , it is well plotted. The characterisation is superb. I do not think that the identity of the murderer is that obvious.
    To those who are disappointed with this book, I recommend another book by Cyril Hare “An English Murder”, which may restore their faith in the author. ( Incidentally, the title of this book is very appropriate, as will be understood after reading the book.)


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