Here is a triumph of the mystery writer’s art. It’s not a detective novel, strictly speaking, since no detective is on hand to chart a course through the dense jungle of clues that mark the story’s terrain. But there’s evidence aplenty, and plenty of scintillating dissection of that evidence, and woven around all of it is a gorgeously complex plot, fashioned from the actions and passions of recognizably human characters. The tale begins when the eponymous trial does—after a Long Island prosecutor has determined that Stephen Bellamy and Susan Ives should face a jury of their peers for allegedly stabbing to death Mimi Bellamy, Stephen’s wife and the putative lover of Susan’s husband. The prosperous country towns of Rosemont and Lakedale, where these attractive young people pursue their respective fates, recall the East Egg and West Egg of The Great Gatsby (1925), and indeed the country-club milieu of the Bellamys and the Iveses bears an echo of the world described in many stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (This novel, like those stories, first saw publication in The Saturday Evening Post.) The tale itself draws inspiration from the notorious Hall-Mills double murder of 1922. That case, like this fictional one, unfolded in the exurban wilds outside of New York City and involved a pair of love-wracked couples, startling fingerprint evidence, and the dramatic late appearance of a surprise witness.
Out of such elements, Hart spun into being the first legal thriller of any note—the progenitor of every “witness for the prosecution” and every “presumed innocent” suspect who came afterward. Except for a final, revelatory scene in the chambers of the presiding magistrate, the “action” of the novel takes place entirely inside a courtroom. Two features rescue the trial proceedings from the perils of stultifying legalism. First, Hart writes in a remarkably fresh style, with none of the held-over Victorian fustiness that afflicts a lot of 1920s prose. The tale, in fact, reads like a top-drawer screenplay from Hollywood’s golden age. (A movie based on the book appeared in 1929, but it was silent and it remains lost. Regrettably, there was no remake.) Second, she employs a clever framing device: Over the course of eight days, we view the trial through the eyes of two nameless denizens of the press box—an ingenuous “girl with red hair” and a hardboiled “reporter”—and over that period we see a romance develop between them as well. Their interactions strike the judicious balance between sentiment and cynicism on which every courtroom drama depends.