Monday, October 12, 2009

Cyril Hare: Tragedy at Law

Now, this is a real little treasure. I found it by accident - I was just going to "get something to read", and ended up trawling the crime section, gazing intently at all the yellow-stickered volumes hoping to find something new. This caught my eye, being an "old one". I'd never heard of Cyril Hare, and these old books have no information at all on the covers, so I really was borrowing blindly so to speak. Oh how I love finding something so entertaining and clever, completely by chance! I'm definitely going to be on the look-out for more of his writings. As Martin Edwards writes, he is one of the forgotten ones - he deserves a revival! And the best thing - the novel centres to a large extent around a car accident that takes place on 12th October 1939. And I finished this book on 12th October 2009. By accident, mind! It's only on the last few pages that one of the characters remarks on the significance of dates, and I noticed then. Clearly it is meant to be, me and Cyril are going to have a torrid love affair. There is no escaping such numerological coincidence.

The novel was written in 1942, and takes place, as I said, in 1939 to 1940. The earliest days of the war are nicely described by someone who is currently in the thick of it. Lord Barber is a rather unlikeable circuit judge, who on one night of the Assizes has too much to drink and knocks a man over with his car. (Or motor, as we said in those days. Oh yes we did.) Of course his position demands that the thing is hushed down, and not only that, but he is virtually penniless despite said position, so he'll be ruined if forced to pay damages. We follow Barber, his brilliant wife Hilda and the people he works with on the circuit, while mysterious things keep happening - anonymous notes, attempts on his life... so who wants to harm Barber, we wonder, while Barber himself is more preoccupied with worrying about financial ruin.

Great things about the book: you learn a lot about the system of the Assize courts. Hare was a judge, and it shows. It shows the system from the inside, and is pleasantly cynical and knowledgable. The real crime takes place at the very end, and then the last chapter or so solves it, while we've been given a lot of clues to do so during the read - Ngaoi Marsh uses much the same style. Plenty of period detail, charm and info in general. Fab bit about Hilda Barber, who is a legal scholar in her own right, but was kept from practising because of male prejudice. The author seems to be torn between recognizing Hilda's superior intelligence and the injustice that she can't practise law openly (only through her husband), and at the same time he feels that it's decidedly unfeminine and a little freakish. I find it fascinating froma feminist point of view, like.

Oh do read this if you come across it, alright? I'm so pleased I'm starting two new labels.

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