‘All manner of persons having anything to do before My Lords the King’s Justices of Oyer and Terminer and General Gaol Delivery in and for the County of Markshire draw near and give your attendance.’
Tragedy at Law begins in all the traditional pomp and ceremony of the Markhampton Assize. Until 1972, English Judges would go on circuits of provincial towns, hearing all the more serious criminal cases at ‘Assizes’ as they went. The Judge in this case is the Honourable Sir William Barber – ‘Shaver’ to his friends. Shaver is accompanied on the circuit by his traditional retinue: High Sheriffs, Under Sheriffs, Judge’s Clerks, Marshals, Butlers and all. However, it is 1939 and the War is just beginning to make itself felt – to Barber’s disgust, for the first time ever, the trumpeters are missing.
The pomp is being experienced for the first time by the young Marshal, to everyone’s amusement named Derek Marshall. Derek is disqualified from active service and making himself useful until he can be placed in a more meaningful job at a ministry.
Derek is helped to settle in by the likeable barrister (not the kind you ask for a mochaccino) Francis Pettigrew. Pettigrew is middle-aged and at a plateau in his career and his personal life. He began well, but circumstances have contrived to make him an also-ran in legal terms. However, he’s happy with his lot.
Circuit life was the breath of his nostrils. Year by year he had travelled it from Markhampton right round to Eastbury, less and less hopeful of any substantial earnings, but certain always of the rewards that good fellowship brings.
Pettigrew is a bachelor, but has relevant history: Shaver’s wife Lady Hilda is an ex-girlfriend. Hilda is another good character – ‘a woman with a real talent for law’ and a valuable ally and advisor to her husband. In many ways his success is her success, and she certainly knows it.
Even putting aside the war, the Southern Circuit of 1939 will be more eventful than most. The circuit opens with a death threat to the judge and the news that an old enemy has been released from prison. As the circuit progresses, from Markhampton to Southington, Wimblington to Rampleford and Eastbury, the threats become more threatening and begin to escalate into actual violence.
The Judge also has problems of his own making. After a heavy night in Markhampton, he foolishly offers to drive Pettigrew back to his hotel. High blood alcohol and the blackout combine to cause an accident. Despite the best efforts of all concerned to sweep the incident under the table for the good of the dignity of the judiciary, he finds himself embroiled in a legal case which threatens to lose him his wig (to coin a phrase).
Events culminate in a death, obviously, and of course it is in deeply confusing circumstances. The solution rests on a suitably legal detail (fairly clued – and luckily the clues had been thoughtfully underlined by a previous reader, or I’d never have spotted it).
Hare’s prose is never dry and the story is related in an ironic voice – best seen in his relation of the Judge’s car accident.
In a well-conducted world His Majesty’s Judges of assize do not drive their own cars… Further, if they so far forget their dignity as to act as their own chauffeurs – for, after all, they are but human and may be permitted to enjoy driving as much as lesser mortals – they do not do so in the black-out, on a wet, moonless night, and after imbibing more than the customary allowance of old brandy. Finally, at all times and seasons, it may be taken for granted that they drive with the utmost care and circumspection. It has regretfully to be recorded that in this, as in so many other instances, the world proved to be somewhat worse conducted than it is popularly supposed to be.
All told, this is a worthy member of the CWA’s top 100 crime novels. Much to enjoy in terms of atmosphere, period detail, style and puzzle.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.