My Book Notes: Tragedy at Law, 1942 (Francis Pettigrew #1 & Inspector Mallet #4) by Cyril Hare

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Faber & Faber, 2011. Book Format: Kindle edition. File Size: 698 KB. Print Length: 288 pages. ASIN: B006ZLY24S. ISBN: 978-0-571288-76-2. First published by Faber & Faber in 1942.

Note to the reader: The courts of assize – commonly known as the assizes – were courts held in the main county towns and presided over by visiting judges from the higher courts based in London. Since the 12th century England and Wales had been divided into six judicial circuits which were the geographical areas covered by visiting judges. This system of holding local assizes at the principal towns of each county remained the chief feature of the English system of justice until it was radically reformed in 1971. At the assize courts judges conducted trials dealing with serious offenders such as murderers, burglars, highwaymen, rapists, forgers and others who came within the scope of capital crime. Court verdicts were returned by locally picked juries of 12. The assizes also dealt with civil disputes, such as entitlement to land or money. From the early 20th century they began to deal with divorce cases which had previously been restricted to the central courts in London. (Source:

17224.books.origjpgFirst Paragraph: “No trumpeters!” said his Lordship in a tone of melancholy and slightly peevish disapproval.

Book Description: Tragedy at Law follows a rather self-important High Court judge, Mr Justice Barber, as he moves from town to town presiding over cases in the Southern England circuit. When an anonymous letter arrives for Barber, warning of imminent revenge, he dismisses it as the work of a harmless lunatic. But then a second letter appears, followed by a poisoned box of the judge’s favourite chocolates, and he begins to fear for his life. Enter barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew, a man who was once in love with Barber’s wife and has never quite succeeded in his profession – can he find out who is threatening Barber before it is too late?

My take: It can be argued that Tragedy at Law is divided in two quite different parts. In the first part, the reader follows a series of incidents that take place while the Honourable Sir William Barber, one of the Justices of the High Court of Justice, is on tour through the Southern Circuit together with his entourage, as a visiting magistrate. The year is 1939 and the II World War has just begun. Everything seems to run smoothly at first, but everything turned out ill. On the second day of the assize, Justice Barber receives a threatening unsigned letter, and that very night Barber himself gets involved in a car accident while driving a little drunk. Things would not have worsened if it where not for the fact that the car insurance had expired. To make matters worse, he has run over a pedestrian who, as a result of the accident, loses one of his fingers. The pedestrian in question turns out to be a famous pianist, and now Judge Barber may have to cope with a heavy economic compensation that could spell his ruin. Besides, Judge Barber escapes two attacks on his life. The first one with a box of poisoned chocolates, the second one night when someone leaves the gas stove of his room poorly closed. His wife, Lady Barber, after   joining him in the circuit, is also attacked by a stranger who couldn’t be identified. Lady Barber strongly believes someone is trying to kill her husband. All these cases are linked together and are by no means fortuitous.

The second part takes place some months later, when Judge Barber and his wife are back in London. The threats against him seems to have faded, but he might be forced to resign his position, if he fails to settle an agreement with the pianist who saw his career dashed, to avoid the scandal.

Cyril Hare used his own experiences as county judge to write this novel set during the first days of World War II. The book provides a funny and satirical view of the legal profession. The plot turns out being rather ingenious and the denouement is unexpected. The story has a very much unique structure; the murder happens when the novel is about to come to an end. However, the author manages to keep the reader’s attention until the last pages. The characters, though they  seem fairly eccentric, so to speak, are nicely drawn. This is the last book in the series with Inspector Mallet and the first book featuring a new character, Francis Pettigrew, who will return in four other books and in some short stories. I found the reading fascinating and highly entertaining. After all I studied law. I have read before Tenant for Death and this won’t be the last of Cyril Hare’s books and short stories I look forward to reading. Highly recommended.

My Rating: A ( I loved it)

Tragedy at Law has been reviewed at A Penguin a week, My Reader’s Block, Past Offences, Crime Scraps Review, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, gadetection, among others.

About the Author: Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark (4 September 1900 – 25 August 1958) was an English judge and crime writer under the pseudonym Cyril Hare. Gordon Clark’s pseudonym was a mixture of Hare Court, where he worked in the chambers of Roland Oliver, and Cyril Mansions, Battersea, where he lived after marrying Mary Barbara Lawrence (see Lawrence baronets, Ealing Park) in 1933. They had one son, Charles Philip Gordon Clark (clergyman, later dry stone waller), and two daughters, Alexandra Mary Gordon Clark (Lady Wedgwood FSA, architectural historian, see Wedgwood baronets) and Cecilia Mary Gordon Clark (Cecilia Snell, musician, who married Roderick Snell). As a young man and during the early days of the Second World War, Gordon Clark toured as a judge’s marshal, an experience he used in Tragedy at Law. Between 1942 and 1945 he worked at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. At the beginning of the war he served a short time at the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and the wartime civil service with many temporary members appears in With a Bare Bodkin. In 1950 he was appointed county court judge in Surrey. His best-known novel is Tragedy at Law, in which he drew on his legal expertise and in which he introduced Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister who in this and four other novels just happens to elucidate aspects of the crime. His professional detective (they appeared together in three novels, and only one has neither of them present) was a large and realistic police officer, Inspector Mallett, with a vast appetite. Tragedy at Law has never been out of print, and Marcel Berlins described it in 1999 as “still among the best whodunnits set in the legal world.” P. D. James went further and wrote that it “is generally acknowledged to be the best detective story set in that fascinating world.” Of his other full-length novels, Suicide Excepted shows a man committing an almost perfect murder, only to find that a quirk of the insurance laws deprives him of the reward. (Source: Wikipedia)

Faber & Faber publicity page 

Detection and the Law: An Appreciation of Cyril Hare 

Mallett & Pettigrew


Tragedia en la justicia, de Cyril Hare

tragedia-en-la-justicia-cyril-hareNota al lector: Los tribunales de justicia –popularmente conocidos como los assizes– eran tribunales organizados en las principales ciudades de los condados y presididos por jueces visitantes de los tribunales superiores con sede en Londres. Desde el siglo XII, Inglaterra y Gales se habían dividido en seis circuitos judiciales, que eran las áreas geográficas cubiertas por los jueces visitantes. Este sistema de organizar tribunales locales en las principales ciudades de cada condado siguió siendo la característica principal del sistema judicial inglés hasta que fue radicalmente reformado en 1971. En estos tribunales, los jueces tramitaban juicios relacionados con autores de delitos graves, como asesinos, ladrones, bandoleros, violadores, falsificadores y otros que entraban en el ámbito de los delitos capitales. Las sentencias judiciales eran emitidas por jurados de 12 personas elegidas localmente. Estos tribunales también abordaban disputas civiles, tales como la titularidad de tierras o dinero. Desde principios del siglo XX comenzaron a ocuparse de demandas de divorcio que anteriormente estaban reservadas a los tribunales centrales de Londres. (Fuente: [Mi traducción libre].

Párrafo inicial: Primer párrafo: “¡No hay trompetas!” dijo su señoría en tono de desaprobación triste y ligeramente malhumorado.

Descripción del libro: Las amenazas se ciernen sobre un alto dignatario de la Corte de justicia y su vida corre serio peligro. ¿Quién deseaba la muerte del juez Barber? Acaso Pettigrew, su enconado rival? Baemish, el secretario?, Hilda, su exquisita esposa? o Happenstall, el ex convicto? El imprevisto y verosímil final sorprenderá al lector.

Mi opinión: Se puede argumentar que Tragedia en la justicia se divide en dos partes muy diferentes. En la primera parte, el lector sigue una serie de incidentes que tienen lugar mientras el Honorable Sir William Barber, uno de los jueces del Tribunal Superior de Justicia, está de gira por el Circuito Sur junto con su séquito, como magistrado visitante. El año es 1939 y la II Guerra Mundial acaba de comenzar. Todo parece funcionar sin problemas al principio, pero todo salió mal. El segundo día del juicio, el juez Barber recibe una carta amenazadora sin firmar, y esa misma noche, el propio Barber se ve involucrado en un accidente automovilístico mientras conduce un poco borracho. Las cosas no habrían empeorado si no fuera por el hecho de que el seguro del automóvil había expirado. Para empeorar las cosas, ha atropellado a un peatón que, como resultado del accidente, pierde uno de sus dedos. El peatón en cuestión resulta ser un famoso pianista, y ahora el juez Barber puede tener que hacer frente a una fuerte compensación económica que podría significar su ruina. Además, el juez Barber escapa de dos ataques contra su vida. El primero con una caja de bombones envenenados, el segundo una noche cuando alguien deja la estufa de gas de su habitación mal cerrada. Su esposa, Lady Barber, después de unirse a él en el circuito, también es atacada por un extraño que no pudo ser identificado. Lady Barber cree firmemente que alguien está tratando de matar a su esposo. Todos estos casos están relacionados entre sí y de ninguna manera son fortuitos.

La segunda parte tiene lugar algunos meses después, cuando el juez Barber y su esposa están de regreso en Londres. Las amenazas contra él parecen haberse desvanecido, pero podría verse obligado a renunciar a su cargo, si no logra llegar a un acuerdo con el pianista que vio su carrera arruinada, para evitar el escándalo.

Cyril Hare usó sus propias experiencias como juez de condado para escribir esta novela ambientada durante los primeros días de la Segunda Guerra Mundial. El libro ofrece una visión divertida y satírica de la profesión jurídica. La trama resulta bastante ingeniosa y el desenlace es inesperado. La historia tiene una estructura muy singular; el asesinato ocurre cuando la novela está a punto de terminar. Sin embargo, el autor logra mantener la atención del lector hasta las últimas páginas. Los personajes, aunque parecen bastante excéntricos, por así decirlo, están muy bien dibujados. Este es el último libro de la serie con el Inspector Mallet y el primer libro con un nuevo personaje, Francis Pettigrew, quien regresará en otros cuatro libros y en algunas historias cortas. La lectura me pareció fascinante y muy entretenida. Después de todo, estudié derecho. He leído antes Huésped para la muerte y este no será el último de los libros y relatos de Cyril Hare que espero leer. Muy recomendable.

Mi valoración: A (Me encantó)

Sobre el autor: Cyril Hare (1900-1958) – seudónimo de Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark escritor británico de libros de misterio, abogado y juez en Surrey. Estudió en el New College, Oxford, y ejerció en los tribunales civiles y penales en Londres y sus alrededores. En 1942 comenzó a trabajar como Temporary Legal Assistant en el Director of Public Prosecutions Department, y a continuación, en el Ministerio de Economía de Guerra. Desde 1950 fue Juez de la Corte del Condado de Surrey.

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