Friday’s Forgotten Book: Cry Guilty by Sara Woods

British author Lana Hutton Bowen-Judd (1922-1985) published 48 mysteries under the name of Sara Woods, three under the name Anne Burton, three under the name of Mary Challis, and three under the name Margaret Leek. Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, she emigrated to Canada with her husband and there undertook her astonishingly prolific writing career, averaging two books a year, using her experience in a solicitor’s office as the basis for many of the plots.

Antony Maitland, the protagonist of the Sara Woods books, is a London barrister much like his legal cousin Perry Mason in that he is not content to simply practice law, he is compelled to investigate the cases that he undertakes. Maitland is surrounded by supportive family and friends who often ride shotgun with him on his investigations, since a war injury to his shoulder has left him unable to drive. He is devoted to his wife, with whom he grew up and married when they were still teenagers. (This is unusual, as most mystery protagonists are divorced, unhappily married, or desperately single.) His uncle with whom he practices law is often highly critical of Antony and his vagaries but deeply protective all the same.

In Cry Guilty!, the thirty-second title in the series, Antony and Jenny are just back in London from their summer vacation in the country when Antony is asked to represent Alan Kirby, who’s been accused of receiving stolen goods, in this case a Rubens painting that had been taken from a local museum months ago. This robbery is one of the latest in a series of art thefts which cropped up in an earlier book. There seems to be no real defense to the case but Antony decides to look into it anyway. After he spends a weekend questioning a number of people without anything much to show for it, his client is killed in a drive-by shooting. Overwhelmed with guilt, as clearly his questions upset someone more than he realized, Antony is determined to identify both the killer and the mastermind behind the art thefts. As often happens in these books, he does so during an intense courtroom scene.

Woods used a criminal kingpin as a plot device in a number of these stories, and I find they seem to wear a little less well than some of her other plots. The standard characters though are familiar and comforting. In a brilliant move Woods promoted a minor character (small town attorney Vera Langhorne who appeared occasionally) to a more prominent position in the series in an earlier book, and she makes a real difference to the interactions of the more established characters.

This series is one that always survives culling when I clear the shelves to make room for more books. I love the legal elements, the plots are generally well done, and the characters are old friends. These books are out of print now but most of the series can be found online or in secondhand book stores. Highly recommended.

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