Neil Clark on Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law, first published in 1942.
‘The best detective story that has appeared for some time and at the end of the year will tundoubtedly stand as one of the class leaders in the English school’ was how The Spectator described Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law, when it first appeared in 1942. ‘A detective masterpiece’ was the New Statesman’s verdict. Others were even more generous in their praise: the crime writer and critic, Julian Symons, included the book in his survey of ‘best, anywhere, ever’.
Tragedy at Law is a detective story like no other. There can’t be any other murder mystery in which the killer strikes so late — on the 221st page out of 252. In fact, to label Tragedy at Law a ‘detective story’ does it an injustice. It’s a wonderfully well-crafted and brilliantly characterised novel which just happens to have a crime in it. Agatha Christie presents great puzzles, but if you don’t like puzzle-solving, her books have relatively little to offer. Hare’s work, by contrast, while featuring ingenious mysteries, can be read even by those who don’t particularly care for the genre: even if Judge Barber didn’t get stabbed to death outside the Old Bailey in chapter 21, Tragedy at Law would still be a cracking read.
The book is set in that strange, twilight world of the autumn of 1939 — a world of blackouts but no bombs — and portrays in great detail wartime life on the Southern Circuit, with its curtailed pomp and ceremony, but far from curtailed rivalries and jealousies.
It was a world that Hare — or rather Alfred Gordon Clark — knew well. Clark was born into a family with strong legal traditions and after schooldays at Rugby (where he said he was ‘starved of food and crammed with learning’) and three years at Oxford (where he obtained a first in History), he made a beeline for the Bar. He learned that his first novel, Tenant for Death had been accepted while on his feet defending a larcenist at Maidstone Assizes. Living in Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and working from Hare Court, Inner Temple, gave Clark the idea for his pseudonym.
Hare, the crime writer, certainly put his day job to good use. During the war he worked as a Judge’s Marshal —- providing the inspiration for Tragedy at Law. A short spell at the Ministry of Economic Warfare spawned the wonderfully atmospheric With a Bare Bodkin. Returning to the Bar after the war, Hare reached the pinnacle of his legal career in 1950 when he became a County Court judge.
While points of law play a large part in Hare’s books, you don’t have to be an LLB to derive great enjoyment from them. Hare is no show-off, boasting of his superior legal knowledge; his style is easy and fluent, and his books are eminently readable.
Four of Hare’s nine novels feature the far from successful, but extremely likeable, defence barrister, Francis Pettigrew. When we first encounter Pettigrew in Tragedy at Law he is leaning back in counsel’s seats in the Shire Hall at Markhampton and reflecting on how little he has achieved.
Looking back at the confident — and he could fairly say it now — brilliant young man who had opened his career at the Bar beneath that self-same flaking plaster ceiling, he fell to wondering what had gone wrong with him. Everything had promised well at first, and everything had turned out ill…. Some time he was going to be successful and make money. Some time he would take silk, become a Bencher of his Inn. Some time he would marry and have a family. And now in a sudden rush of disillusionment, from which he strove to exclude self-pity, he saw quite clearly that ‘some time’ had become ‘never’.
The transformation of Pettigrew from down-on-his luck Circuit barrister, staying in budget hotels and wearing shabby overcoats, into a fulfilled and happily married man, is one of the delights of the Hare canon.
Hare wasn’t only a great novelist; he was a master of the short story. Some of his short stories are very short indeed: in ‘The Rivals’ he manages to construct an intriguing whodunit in a little over 1,000 words.
In his introduction to a collection of Hare’s best short stories, Michael Gilbert recalls his first encounter with the great man at London’s Detection Club. Hare appeared to come
straight from the pages of the Strand magazine and Paget’s illustrations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The thin, inquisitive nose, the intellectual forehead, the piercing eye, the Oxford common room voice.
Although the description implies a certain austerity, there was nothing chilly about Hare or his writing. He was a kindly and compassionate observer of human failings his work is full of humorous insights and devoid of the snobbery which mars much of the detective fiction of the ‘golden age’. Sadly, Hare was cut off in his prime, dying suddenly at the age of 57, exactly 50 years ago this week.
While his books have regularly been republished, most recently by House of Stratus at the turn of the decade, the great mystery is that, save for a 1975 Soviet film version of An English Murder, there have been no television or film adaptations of his work. Dramatisation of his novels would, I’m sure, make for wonderful Sunday night viewing. Half a century on from Hare’s untimely death, what better way could there be to bring the work of one of Britain’s finest writers to the attention of a wider audience?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 30, 2008