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Mr Justice Barber is a High Court judge, currently acting as His Majesty’s Judge of Assize in the Southern Circuit of England. He is rather a pompous man, full of pride in his own lofty position, and though he is a good judge on the whole he can be rather harsh on occasions, both in his sentencing and towards the various barristers who appear before him in defence of their clients. So when he receives a threatening anonymous letter he doesn’t think much of it, since threats tend to come with the position and as the King’s representative he is surrounded by police and officials to protect his dignity and, if necessary, his life. However, when he then receives a box of chocolates which turn out to have been poisoned, he begins to take the matter more seriously, as does his wife, Hilda, who sets out to ensure his safety, roping in young Derek Marshall, the coincidentally named Judge’s Marshal who accompanies the Judge on his travels.
This one has rather an odd structure in that it’s mostly about a crime that hasn’t yet been committed, and there’s no certainty that it will be, or that it’s even being seriously contemplated. The various threats against the Judge gradually escalate into odd happenings that may be accidental or may be deliberate, and this creates an air of suspicion and growing tension as the Judge and his entourage move from town to town dispensing justice. Although it’s written in the third person, we see it for the most part from Derek Marshall’s perspective. He’s a young man who has been turned down for service in the army on health grounds, and feels as if he ought to be doing something more useful to help the ongoing war effort. He’s new to the Assizes, and so is the perfect vehicle for Hare to use to describe this rather archaic (and now defunct) system of travelling justice. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards informs us that Cyril Hare was drawing on his personal experience – “Fifteen years spent practising at the Bar, and a spell as a judge’s marshal, meant that he was ideally suited to describing life on a judicial circuit.”
Despite the mass of detail about the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Assizes and some detours into points of law, this never gives the feeling of a dry information dump. Hare makes the Judge’s life and position a central part of the plot, so that all the detail feels necessary, never redundant. The plot develops quite slowly, but it never feels draggy because the writing and characterisation are so well done, and there’s some gentle humour which stops it from becoming too dark. Hare shows us that justice is not blind – that it tends to come down harder on “the common man” than on those in high social positions, as we see when the Judge himself crosses the criminal line by accident and everyone immediately conspires to hush the matter up, if possible. It may not be possible, though, and this forms a secondary strand, especially when events begin to suggest that the two matters – the threats and the Judge’s misdemeanour – might somehow be connected.
The book is billed as the first “Francis Pettigrew” mystery. Pettigrew is a barrister whose practice takes him round the courts of the Southern Circuit, so that he often finds himself appearing before Judge Barber. But although he does play a significant role in this one and is a very enjoyable character, he doesn’t feel like the main one – maybe Hare developed him as a central character and amateur detective more fully in later books. In this one, it’s young Derek and the Judge’s wife, Hilda, who are most prominent, and the Judge himself, of course. Hilda is a wonderful character, who reminded me not a little of a less caricatured version of that other famous, later, legal Hilda – She Who Must Be Obeyed, from the Rumpole books. This Hilda also bullies and cajoles her husband and is more ambitious for his success than he is himself. However, she’s an intriguing characterisation – a brilliant, qualified lawyer in her own right who, because of her sex, wasn’t taken seriously either by the men in her profession or by clients who wanted to be defended by a ‘real’ lawyer – i.e., a man. Now she acts as a kind of power behind the throne, often arguing points of law with the Judge, and it’s rumoured that his judgements often have more to do with her opinion than his. Hare shows a good deal of sympathy towards women’s exclusion from full participation in the legal profession in this era.
I’ve tried to say very little about the plot because it develops slowly and not knowing what will happen makes it more enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and looking back at the end I could see that Hare had fairly sprinkled all the information needed for the reader to work it out. Needless to say I didn’t! Yet another vintage mystery writer that I will be adding to my growing “must read more” list! Highly recommended.
I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.