BRUCE HAMILTON – Hanging Judge. Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1948. Hillman #15, paperback, 1949. First published in the UK as Let Him Have Judgment: The Cresset Press, hardcover, 1948. Also: Pocket B-29, UK, paperback, 1950. Stage play: “The Hanging Judge” (the only play ever written by actor Raymond Massey; produced and directed in the UK by film director Michael Powell). Radio play: “The Hanging Judge” on The Play of His Choice, UK, December 1953, starring Boris Karloff. TV adaptation: “The Hanging Judge,” a second season episode of Climax! (CBS, 12 January 1956; director: John Frankenheimer).

   One of the great pleasures of attending PulpFest is pawing through the cheap-o boxes and coming across something you never heard of that piques your interest; maybe it’s the cover or blurb or just the title, but you say, “Aww what the hell, why not?”

   Then when you get around to reading it, you discover something really fine ….

   Hanging Judge opens in England, sometime around 1936 with young Harry Gosling about to be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. On the eve of his execution, Sir Francis Brittain, the judge whose damning summary to the jury ensured Gosling’s conviction, delivers a smug after-dinner speech to the effect that the British system of justice is perfectly infallible. And on the morning of Gosling’s execution, Brittain enjoys a good breakfast and goes back to the bench to spew out more self-righteous venom, a satisfied man

   But Harry has managed to smuggle a letter out of prison, and shortly thereafter a man calling himself Teal shows up in London looking for Judge Brittain — too late, it seems because Brittain has just left for a few weeks holiday in the quaint little sea coast village of Moxton.

   At this point Hanging Judge turns into a Cozy mystery, with a cast of colorful village folk and a redoubtable local constable. Teal shows up here, but instead of looking for Judge Brittain, he seems more interested in another visitor there named Willoughby. Willoughby has an unsavory reputation thereabouts, but he’s a frequent if irregular resident, apparently a man of some importance, and part of the local scene. So when Teal goes to visit him one evening and never returns, suspicions arise.

   Still in the Village Cozy mode, author Hamilton limns an engrossing tale of investigation and growing suspicion, as the local constabulary find their efforts blocked by class distinctions — a theme prominent in the works of Anne Perry — mainly Willoughby’s aristocratic equivalent of get-the-hell-off-my-lawn. Then Willoughby himself disappears, and it dawns on the townsfolk that no one knew anything about him — including where to find him when Teal’s body turns up in his well.

   Right about here Hanging Judge shifts gears and becomes something of a political thriller as the wanted man (who is not Willoughby!) and various interested parties use their considerable influence to see that he evades justice, first by a rigged inquest and then with an absorbing escape attempt.

   At which point we shift gears yet again, as the book becomes a tense courtroom drama, a sort of quickie equivalent of Anatomy of a Murder as arguments and rebuttals fly about the courtroom and the jury sways this was, then that, culminating in an ironic and highly satisfying conclusion.

   I have to say that shortly after I closed this book with a satisfied smile, it struck me that the whole thing hinged on a couple of coincidences that it seemed the author went a long way to fetch back. But he did such a fine job of papering over them that I barely noticed at the time, and even on reflection they didn’t dampen my enjoyment a bit.

Editorial Note:   There is a quote from Erle Stanley Gardner on the front cover of the Hillman paperback. In case it is too small to make out, he says: “This book is in my opinion a mystery masterpiece.”