In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Tragedy At Law by Cyril Hare

In 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.