I first came across Henry Cecil, or Henry Cecil Leon, as his full name is, in a bookshop I used to shop at some years ago, when I laid my eyes on what seemed like really fun covers (sort of like Wodehouse books). When I asked about them, I was told that they were humorous fiction related to the law (which makes him the perfect choice for this month’s theme). So of course, I had to try one, and the one I picked was Ways and Means. Ways and Means is a collection of four stories featuring the somewhat likeable cons/tricksters Basil Merridew and Nicholas Drewe who use the subtleties of the law to their advantage (including a slander action against their “neighbours”), making fair sums in the process. Their pretty wives are also very much part of the plan, well some of their plans, anyway. In one of the stories, they even “start” an art movement “the Gropists”. These were fun stories, but while I enjoyed them I didn’t absolutely love them. (I was still glad I read this one first because it made my reading of another Cecil title, Unlawful Occasions, some years later, much more fun than it would have been had I not read this one―I won’t say why for that will spoil it for you).
But when I found Cecil’s books in another shop, I was interested enough to try another and that’s where I found Daughters-in-Law which is my favourite of all his books I’ve read so far. This is the story of Mr Justice Coombe, who has twin daughters Prunella and Jane who follow in his footsteps and join the law, Prunella becoming a barrister and Jane a solicitor. Jane and Prunella fall in love with the sons of Major Claude Buttonstep but the major hates lawyers. But when the Major gets into a dispute with a rather annoying new neighbour, Mr Trotter, all over a lawn mower which he had lent the latter, and has to go to court, much hilarity ensues. The rest of the story is of course about how things play out when they reach court, whether the Major gets back his lawn mower, and whether Jane and Prunella can marry their sweethearts. This one turned out to be such good fun that it led me to look up and read more Cecil.
Henry Cecil was born in 1902, in a not very well-off family, but his parents gave their children good educations (and he did well by them too giving them the gift of a car and chauffeur, which made them very happy. In 1923, he was called to the bar, and in 1949 became a county court judge. It was on his experiences in court that he based his various books. He has written (I hope I counted correctly) 28 books of fiction which include novels and short story collections, as well as some non-fiction (wikipedia has a list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cecil_Leon). (I’ve read 10 of these so far, and an 11th is on my TBR, which I will be reading this month) He was inspired to write fiction in a sense by Richard Gordon’s doctor books, which made him want to do something similar for the law (this I read in his autobiography, Just Within the Law (1975), which I was lucky enough to find in my university library some years ago), and when you read his books, you see that he mostly certainly did! (The picture below is also from the autobio, and I had taken it back when I read it (2012) to send to a friend who also enjoys his books.)
The plots of his stories involve mostly the subtleties of and loopholes in the law which his characters are happy to take advantage of, leading to some very amusing situations indeed. Themes range from blackmail and defamation to adoption and even murder (on quite a few occasions actually), though while some of the books have an element of mystery, one can’t really describe them at mysteries. One that is very different is the Buttercup Spell which involves a whole lot of people (a judge included) being affected by buttercup pollen which make them love their fellow beings, and lead to some rather strange and crazy situations. This quote from the Sunday Times at the back of one of the books I have, reminded me a little of what is said of Wodehouse as well: “The Secret of Mr Cecil’s success lies in his continuing to do superbly what everyone knows he can do well.”
His books include standalone titles as well as some series. One in particular is the Roger Thursby series which comprises Brothers-in-Law, Friends at Court, and Sober as a Judge which traces the journey of Roger Thursby, a twenty-four-year old who is just called to the bar, and at least, initially, bumbles his way through court, and a little bit in personal life too. The second book sees him as a QC while in the third, as the title shows, Thursby becomes a judge. Brothers-in-Law, the first in the series was according to Wodehouse, “the best Henry Cecil”, yet! (Though different, this book is kind of like Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, if one wanted a comparison.)
Another series of sorts is formed by the books No Bail for the Judge and According to the Evidence. No Bail for the Judge sees a highly respected judge Mr Justice Prout accused of the murder of a prostitute. He would clear himself, only he doesn’t remember a thing of what happened on that fateful day. His daughter Elizabeth enlists the help of a gentleman-burglar Ambrose Low to help clear his name. In According to the Evidence, one Alec Morland is on trial for murdering a serial killer, and his fiancé Jane approaches Ambrose, now married to Elizabeth Prout, to do what he did for his father-in-law in the first one. But in this one, things are different, for Morland has taken the law into his own hands.
Gentlemen-crooks appear in more than one of Cecil’s books, but so does another type of character, the exasperating witness in court, and none is more so than Colonel Brain. Col. Brain is a retired Lieutenant Colonel who appears in at least four of Cecil’s books (these aren’t a series as such, but he is a recurring character, as is the drunken and somewhat similarly exasperating lawyer Mr Tewkesbury)―No Bail for the Judge, According to the Evidence, Natural Causes (where he is quite benign compared to his other appearances), and Independent Witness among them. He appears mostly (always?) in the role of a witness, either one who has genuinely witnessed the incident in question or whose help is enlisted (for instance by Ambrose Low), though Brain is no crook and if he is “enlisted”, it is without his knowledge which means the results are not always predictable (landing people into some trouble as well). I have honestly never encountered a comparable character in any other book I read (let alone real life), and as Cecil’s books are based on his real-life experiences, one can only imagine what the real Col Brain, or if based on more than one person, what those people must have been like. Here’s a sample of his evidence from According to the Evidence (1954):
Colonel Brain, said the judge….“you are being asked a perfectly simple question. Will you kindly answer it?”
“Of course, my Lord”, said the colonel. “I understand that’s what I’m here for.”
“I’m glad you realize that at last,” said the judge.
“Oh-my Lord,” said the colonel, “I’ve realized it all the time.”
“Very well then. Answer the question.”
“Yes, my Lord―when I know what it is.”
The judge said nothing for several seconds, while he looked keenly at the witness.
“Are you telling me,” he said eventually, “that you don’t know what the question is?”
“Not in advance my Lord. D’you mean you want me to guess what it is, my Lord?”
“I mean nothing of the kind. Do you mean to tell me you were a colonel in the Army?”
“A lieutenant-colonel, my Lord. If I’d known that was the question, I’d have answered a long time ago.”
“It was not the question.”
“I’m sorry, my Lord. Shouldn’t I have answered it then?”
And so it goes. You get the picture I’m sure and this isn’t even the best of the lot but just one I remembered and picked up to share. And if he seems merely funny at this point, wait till you get a full dose, you may want to tear your hair, just as the judges very often want to do. Mr Tewkesbury can be somewhat similar sometimes (not always). From Daughters-in-Law (1961):
“Very well, then. What questions did you ask my client at the first interview to see if he had a good cause of action?”
“May I look at my notes?”
“Certainly, if they were made at the time.”
Jane handed some papers to the usher who handed them on to Mr Tewkesbury. He gazed at them for some little time.
“Is that what you want?” asked Mr Bone.
“It’s what I’ve got,” said Mr Tewkesbury. “I can’t say I particularly want them.”
Interesting plots with some twists along the way, some likeable characters and some infuriating ones, twists and turns of the law, but always a smile and many a time, plenty of laughs is what you’ll get from Cecil’s books. So if you haven’t read him yet, do. It’ll be great fun.