Martin Edwards has spoken highly Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law on his blog, so when I saw a copy in the local used bookstore, I snapped it up. I’m very glad I did.
It’s late 1939. World War II has started, but Britain remains mostly unaffected, suffering only the irritations of a shortage of manpower and a nightly blackout. Against this backdrop, a rather pompous judge named Barber sets out with his retinue to ride the assizes of the (fictitious) Southern Circuit. The judge finds a certain wartime expediency extremely irritating: the customary trumpeters who mark his passage to court every day have been dispensed with.
Trouble rears its head in the very first town. The judge hears that a man to whom he once gave a very stiff sentence has been released, and is in fact nearby. To soothe his nerves the judge drinks a bit more than usual at dinner; and while driving home he runs a man down in his car. Fortunately the man is not killed, but by coincidence it’s a well-known concert pianist, who loses a finger as a result.
As the tour continues, strange incidents pile up. Is the newly released prisoner behind them? The pianist? His girlfriend, an acquaintance of the judge’s wife whose hostility is returned in full measure? And are these pranks, or serious attempts on Barber’s life?
The truth behind these acts is a bit of a muddle until the very end of the novel, though the ultimate resolution is surprising indeed, but this is not really the point of the novel. It’s much more a comedy of manners. Tragedy at Law is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, despite the fact that the author never stoops to anything as vulgar as a joke (with one exception – that judge’s marshal is in fact named Marshall). In its own way it’s as funny as the Rumpole stories, which similarly feature a barrister, but whose tone is much more jolly.
If you like bone-dry British humor and a well-done legal mystery – and the point of law on which this book turns is very obscure – I can guarantee that you’ll find this book enjoyable.