I blame the concept of law as a business, which became popular at that time, and which displaced the notion of law as a learned profession. As a result of my experiences, I don't have much interest in legal mysteries. It's sort of like that old saw about how you'll never eat sausage again once you've seen how they're made. But there is one exception to my aversion toward legal mysteries: I'm a sucker for British mysteries about lawyers practicing in the good old days. Why? Let me count the ways.
Trials are over in nothing flat.
Whew! After all that, the trial is almost an anticlimax. But when Sir Impey Biggs (one of the great character names) gives his final speech for the defense, he not only asks for a finding of Not Guilty, but notes that with it will come the restoration to the Duke of the "traditional symbols of his exalted rank." I suppose that means that he gets back his nobility and his puissance, whatever that means.
British barristers and judges wear nifty wigs and robes.
British court rules allow judges to question witnesses and to comment on the evidence to the jury.
MR. TEWKESBURY: Now, officer, I want you to follow this next question very closely.Georgette is a devotée of Henry Cecil's books and, doubtless, could contribute many more stories about judges and lawyers in Cecil's world.
CONSTABLE: I try to follow all your questions closely.
TEWKESBURY: And to what measure of success?
MAGISTRATE: You needn't answer that question.
TEWKESBURY: But, sir, with the greatest possible respect, am I not entitled to an answer?
TEWKESBURY: But, sir, unless I know the measure of success which the officer has in following my questions, it becomes more difficult for me to frame the next question.
MAGISTRATE: So far you seem to have overcome your difficulties most manfully. I have observed no lack of questions.
TEWKESBURY: Your Worship's courtesy overwhelms me.
MAGISTRATE (to himself): I wish it would.
TEWKESBURY: Is it now convenient, sir, that I should resume my cross-examination where I left off?
MAGISTRATE: Very well.
TEWKESBURY: Well then, officer, would you be kind enough to tell me the measure of success with which you have understood my previous questions?
MAGISTRATE: I've just said he needn't answer that question.
TEWKESBURY: But, sir, did I not understand you to change your mind and say that I may ask it? If I may say so, the greatest judges change their minds. Judex mutabilis, judex amabilis, if I may say so.
MAGISTRATE: Mr. Tewkesbury, would you kindly continue your cross-examination of this witness? I've fifty summonses to hear after this.
TEWKESBURY: I don't know how your Worship does it and retains your good humour.
MAGISTRATE (quietly, to his clerk): I've about had enough of this. Is he sober?
British coroners have a power similar to judges to guide the outcome of cases. In Colin Watson's Flaxborough novels, longtime Coroner Albert Amblesby conducts inquests with an iron fist and a lot of sardonic comment. You get the impression that nothing ever happens in an inquest that isn't orchestrated by Amblesby. If you haven't read any Flaxborough novels, give Lonelyheart 4122 a try first. I think it's the funniest, and it features one of the great side characters in crime fiction, the deceptively genteel-appearing con-woman Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime.
Legal research was a piece of cake.
Speaking of cake, how about the snacks in the office?
When I was reading She Shall Have Murder, it seemed like I was always hungry. It must have something to do with the fact that the staff spent so much time in the kitchen, boiling up hot water for tea, getting plates of buns and biscuits, opening tins of sardines and making sandwiches.
Forget the snacks, how about the drinks?
* * *
Reading these books could just about ruin the practice of law for anybody trying to do the job these days. Hmm. Maybe I'll forward some of these books to some of today's law-as-a-business types and show them how much more fun it was (and could be?) to practice law as a learned profession.
If you'd like to read other classic mysteries featuring British lawyers, here are some suggestions:
Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew series, beginning with Tragedy At Law
Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale series
R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke series
Michael Underwood's Rosa Epton series
Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair
Michael Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased, Death Has Deep Roots, The Crack In the Teacup and Flash Point
Agatha Christie's "Witness For the Prosecution" (and the film of the same name, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester)
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from Manor Minor Press!
Review of Delano Ames's She Shall Have Murder
There are few things I enjoy more than a good, old-fashioned British puzzle mystery. The kind with a limited number of suspects, and whose solution depends largely upon figuring out times and places, and picking up on small clues dropped in dialog. But the mystery also has to have an appealing sleuth. Delano Ames gives us all the elements of an excellent classic mystery, along with a bonus: two appealing sleuths.
Jane Hamish is a law clerk at the small London firm of Playfair & Son. Her fiancé, Dagobert Brown, is currently unemployed. A regular client, the extremely paranoid Mrs. Robjohn, has been found dead in her apartment. The death is ruled accidental, the result of the gas jet in the gas heater going on in the middle of the night when gas service is restored after an outage. Dagobert, who visited Mrs. Robjohn earlier that evening with Jane, realizes that the death was actually a murder. With his plentiful spare time, he begins an investigation.
Over drinks, tea and dinners, Jane and Dagobert compare notes about his sleuthing and what she has been able to find out in the office. They have quite a few suspects: Mrs. Robjohn's son, Douglas; his secret fiancée and Jane's office co-worker Sarah; Major Stewart, one of the law firm partners; Rosemary, another co-worker and someone who shares a secret with Major Stewart; Oates, the light-fingered office runner with apparent underworld connections; and old Mr. Playfair himself. Figuring out the culprit will take a lot of devious tricks by Dagobert, and some risky ploys by Jane.
Delano Ames's writing is delightfully wry, and Dagobert and Jane are a lively, smart-talking pair. They're not unlike Nick and Nora Charles in some ways. Dagobert delights in tricking suspects and driving them a little crazy with his antics, while Jane often tries to puncture Dagobert's bumptiousness with a well-placed dart or two. But, unlike Nora, Jane is an active partner in the sleuthing; a supremely intelligent young woman who is up to the challenge of solving the crime.
Note: A version of this review appears on Amazon, under my username there.