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This review is from: Tragedy at Law (Paperback)
Much of the considerable charm of this ingenious crime novel lies in its picturesque period setting, during the phoney war of 1940. The story unfolds as Mr Justice Barber makes his stately progress around the Southern Circuit, calling at one county town after another, to dispense justice in the King's name. This is a world in which an English town, whose court-house has been closed for perhaps five months since the last assize, has only five or six serious cases to be heard, a world where trials are conducted in quaint old court-rooms, where a case of murder can be dealt with in less than two days (the jury considering its verdict for all of half an hour) and where the judge must be treated, quite literally, as though he were the monarch he represents.
Most classic English crime novels are set in a closed community: country house, school, hospital or whatever. But by setting his story on the legal circuit, Hare is able to vary the setting, as the judge and his legal entourage move from Assize Town to Assize Town, each of which has its own special character. But the community - the judge, his wife, his Marshal, his clerk, and a retinue of servants - is still a closed one in which each figure has a significant part to play in the complex and intriguing tale.
The highly engaging cast of characters includes Pettigrew - a sort of proto-Rumpole - an ageing junior barrister whose courtroom wit and occasional levity at judges' expense may have hindered his career; Derek Marshal, the judge's assistant, whose honourable nature and considerable intelligence is somewhat compromised by youth and lack of experience; Lady Barber, the judge's alluring young wife, denied a brilliant career at the Bar because of pre-war prejudice against women, and Beamish, the judge's clerk - a man with more than one secret to hide.
All in all, this novel offers everything the genre ought to offer a reader: an interesting setting, varied and engaging characters, an intricate and intriguing plot and a surprising denoument. And while most crime novels begin with a crime, this one brilliantly varies the classic form by placing the crime at the end of the story! Anyone who enjoys complex and intelligent crime fiction of the old-school, written with dry wit and a certain amused detachment, will relish this novel. That's a promise.