“No profession offers so many possibilities for the amateur detective as the law,” comments The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery on the sub-genre of legal-detective fiction, noting its range as: “the grimly realistic to the avowedly cerebral.”
Certainly, few professions offer such atmospheric settings for crime, intrigue and murder as the ancient Inns of Court with their secluded courtyards and dark alleys, operating like a secret society enclosed within its own private walls, away from the prying eyes and ears beyond the gates. J S Fletcher was one such writer who took full advantage of such an opportunity in The Middle Temple Murder. Whether the protagonist resides within the Inns, such as R A Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke in Inner Temple or draws upon years of experience and knowledge gained from sitting at innumerable hall dinners such as Cyril Hare’s Francis Pettigrew, the collegiate nature of the Bar and the skills barristers possess make them singularly well-suited to the role of amateur sleuth whenever the possibility arises. Whilst they are often limited to performing inside a courtroom, the sharp questioning, forensic analysis and human judgment displayed by barristers can be utilised to their full potential when they are let loose on the trail of an unidentified murderer.
In many ways the greatest irony of the genre, in its widest sense, is that the writer who is credited with inventing it was a barrister who never actually created a barrister as one of his detectives. Wilkie Collins can justifiably lay claim to being the father of the detective novel and of whose novel The Moonstone (1868), T S Eliot declared to be “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It was the success of this novel that catapulted him into the same stratosphere as Dickens and has secured his legacy within Victorian crime fiction. Yet Lincoln’s Inn can lay an earlier claim on him when he was Called to the Bar in 1851. Whilst he may have moved away from the law for his most famous works, he couldn’t cast it off altogether as can be seen from one of his neglected works, The Law and the Lady (1875). The story of a newly married woman learning that her husband had been accused of poisoning his last wife and found “not proven” in the Scots courts rather than “not guilty” and setting out to clear his name and upturning the conventions of polite 19th Century society during her investigations. It also gave Collins the chance to air his grievances and attack the system which allowed such a verdict and the damaging effect it could have on an accused’s reputation who had not been found legally guilty. The book is available as part of the Penguin Classics library.
The author who picked up the mantle in this field was Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a Middle Temple barrister and county court judge who, aged 36, became better known to the public under his pseudonym Cyril Hare; the name being a combination of his flat in Cyril Mansions, Battersea and Hare Court in the chambers of Ronald Oliver.
Drawing upon his experience of the criminal justice and civil proceedings, including a spell in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, he created his most memorable character, the slightly crabby, dry-humoured barrister Francis Pettigrew.
Each story is based primarily on one aspect of the legal system and then intertwined within this is the mystery that Pettigrew is called upon to resolve. His finest story is widely acknowledged to be Tragedy at Law (1942), in which Mr Justice Barber, a High Court judge on circuit receives threatening letters and nasty surprises whilst travelling around the country before finally receiving a blade in his back. The further twist in the tale is that this does not occur until very late in the book, leaving Pettigrew with the last three chapters out of 24 to solve the murder, and leading the Sunday Times to praise Hare’s writing as “dazzlingly ingenious”.
Faber Finds recently republished 30 of his stories, Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare, selected by his friend and fellow crime writer and lawyer, the late Michael Gilbert, who was inspired to take up the art after coming across a copy of Tragedy at Law whilst a prisoner of war.
Richard Austin Freeman
In contrast to the ageing and increasingly curmudgeonly Pettigrew, Richard Austin Freeman’s protagonist, Dr John Thorndyke is a detective much more in the Holmes model, described as “exceptionally tall, strong and athletic … with a symmetrical face of the classical type and the Grecian nose”. Freeman considered him to be “a unique figure in the legal world … [as] a barrister and a doctor of medicine”, residing at 5A King’s Bench Walk, Inner Temple. He also had his own Watson in the form of chronicler and companion Christopher Jervis, labelled “an expert misunderstander”, who provides the perfect foil for Thorndyke’s highly reasoned deductions.
The defining trait of the stories is detailed forensic examination as the primary method of solving mysteries, with scenarios as diverse as the imprints of hob-nailed boots on a beach, the issue of ingeniously forged fingerprints or ancient ciphers as the clue to a robbery. Although occasionally criticised for using unnecessarily esoteric terminology, which tends to hinder the reader trying to solve the mystery as it progresses, the greater pleasure is to be derived from witnessing Thorndyke’s almost superhuman reasoning and analysis. Whilst many of his novels are no longer in print, they can often be found in crime second-hand bookshops as well as online at www.manybooks.net
It would be wrong, however, to assume that legal-detective fiction writing was a male preserve based exclusively within the Temple. Sarah Caudwell’s novels are a testament to this. Her pseudonym hid a distinguished literary and cultural heritage as the daughter of Claud Cockburn, the radical English journalist who founded The Week as a pre-cursor to Private Eye.
Caudwell, who died in 2000 from cancer, championed the Chancery Bar as the ideal home for the amateur sleuth as “money is often the motive for murder and inheritance and complications and other financial tangles provide plenty of clues for those who specialise in that area of the law”.
Rather than simply relying on one protagonist, Caudwell chose to have a group of five young barristers, based in Lincoln’s Inn, overseen by a narrator, the absurdly elitist, Professor Hilary Tamer, who is described as an Oxford don, “but of equivocal sex and even equivocal age, resembling that precise, donnish kind of individual who starts being elderly at the age of 22”.
Although she only wrote four novels, the literary style of writing and intricate plots combined with an almost juvenile atmosphere among the confident, sexually active barristers, ever armed with an ironic quip, won her international success and acclaim. Her books are: Thus was Adonis Murdered (1981); The Shortest Way to Hades (1985); The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989); and The Sibyl in Her Grave (2000).
Whilst these three authors are probably the best known among the genre, others writing in this genre, many of whom wrote series of novels featuring detective barristers and others who wrote only the one. JS Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder (1918), centred around the discovery of an unidentified murdered body in Middle Temple Lane and implicating an MP had the rare acclaim of being praised to the American public by President Woodrow Wilson who called it one of his favourite novels.
The prolific author Louis Tracy created not only one barrister detective, Reginald Brett who appears in The Albert Gate Mystery (1904) where four Turks have been inexplicably found murdered. A year later, under the name Gordon Holmes, he created his second, Claude Bruce, an Inner Temple barrister in A Mysterious Disappearance (1905) which won the acclaim of the New York Times as being “quite the best story of its kind we have read in a long while”.
Detective stories are not always set within the Inns. Fergus Hume’s The Silent House in Pimlico (1899), for example, introduces Lucien Denzil, a young barrister of independent means, investigating the strange events reported at the single, uninhabited house in Geneva Square where he lives. Many of these stories can be found online at Project Gutenberg as e-texts: www.gutenberg.org
One interesting theme in this genre is that female authors often preferred to be cloaked in the comfort of a male pseudonym when writing about barrister detectives. Lucy Malleson, who wrote a wide range of fiction, chose to publish under the name Anthony Gilbert, presumably because it was felt a woman writing this type of fiction could not be taken seriously. The shambolic, cockney, bedraggled lawyer, Arthur G Crook, described as “a criminal’s hope and the judge’s despair” was a welcome addition to the canon. His slovenly façade, not dissimilar to Mortimer’s Rumpole, masks a sharp, inquisitive brain displayed in stories such as Missing Her Home (1969) when called to investigate the disappearance of a young girl whilst on her way to the supermarket.
This literary subterfuge was also utilised by Doris Shannon for her ten novels in the A Death For… series featuring the retired barrister-sleuth Robert Forsyth written between 1984 and 1993. Whilst her chosen nom de plume, E X Giroux, is somewhat ambiguous as to gender, one can’t help feeling the author felt it would lend the novels some male gravitas, especially in more traditional environs of the Bar.
In more recent times, women authors have been much more forthcoming in breaking outdated taboos, such as Nicola Williams with her excellent debut novel Without Prejudice (1998). As a criminal barrister with 16 years’ experience, she had no qualms about taking the credit for her story of a young, black, female criminal barrister who gets entangled in a high-profile fraud case with a millionaire playboy. The novel not only provides a thrilling plot laced with suspense, but also deals with the more subtle issues of overcoming prejudice within chambers and the place of minorities and the underprivileged within the criminal justice system.
Husband and wife
One female writer, Georgette Heyer, best known for her Regency romances and mysteries had no training at the Bar herself but drew upon the experiences of her husband, George Ronald Rougier QC, when penning her mystery novels. Her only son, Sir Richard Rougier, an outspoken and colourful High Court judge died in March this year. Among her prolific output, she created a notable character, Frank Amberley, who is a barrister, amateur detective and self-confessed “rudest man in London” with few people spared his disparaging and waspish remarks. He appears in Why Shoot a Butler? (1933) which alongside a murder mystery still finds scope for Heyer’s trademark romance.
Bar’s impact on the genre
This is but a brief overview, but what it undoubtedly shows is that the Bar, throughout the 20th Century, has demonstrated it is more than capable of holding its head high in the legal-detective fiction genre of literature.
Sunil Tailor has now completed the BVC with a view to practising at the criminal Bar