Books : reviews

Sarah Caudwell.
Thus Was Adonis Murdered.
Dell. 1981

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 26 December 1999

I read this because of a chance comment I read on rec.arts.sf.written, comparing Sarah Caudwell favourably with Dorothy L. Sayers. I just hate it when people recommend good new authors; I've got enough problems as it is, thank you very much; since reading TWAM I've had to go out and buy another two Caudwell's!

Most of the interest is in the style. The narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar, is a pompous but very intelligent Oxford Don, who describes the progress of the plot in delightful passages such as:

On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers I needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself, it was almost eleven and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.

The murder, of an Inland Revenue officer, takes place in Venice, yet Tamar spends the whole book in London, solving the crime based on the letters sent back by Julia (a tax solicitor on holiday in Venice, and, according to the Italian police, the obvious suspect) and Timothy (a colleague of hers who also goes to Venice). The structure of the narration interwoven with that of the letters allows two different voices to be heard, and each is beautifully done -- witty, clever and funny. And because of the structure, the murder and detection are at second hand, yielding a pleasant puzzle story rather than any gruesome realism.

Although I said the main attraction is the style, the murder plot itself is clever, with the clues boldly presented to the reader in such a way that they are totally invisible (to me, anyway), except with hindsight. All in all, a joy to read -- and I'm looking forward to the next ones.

Sarah Caudwell.
The Shortest Way to Hades.
Dell. 1984

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 18 September 2000

This time the group of lawyers get involved in what may or may not be a murder, which may or may not be to do with a Will. They call in Hilary Tamar, who is initially sceptical, but as the evidence piles up, eventually convinced that there is foul play afoot.

Again the style is such a delight (I laughed out loud in several places -- there are some wonderful set pieces) that it almost conceals the fact that there is also a very clever murder puzzle, with all the clues carefully presented. The reason for the clues' invisibility, I have decided, is that they appear to be just further corroborating detail in some of the delightfully deadpan bizarre narratives. Wonderfully constructed.

Sarah Caudwell.
The Sirens Sang of Murder.
Dell. 1989

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 26 December 2003

The third tale of Hilary Tamar and the lawyers at 62 New Square is just as bizarre, inventive, and delightful as the previous two. This time there are some suspicious deaths associated with the Daffodil Settlement, involving several million pounds and a lot of baroque "tax planning". As with the previous books Hilary spends most of the time in London, where the group are kept informed of progress by long and detailed telexes from Michael Cantrip, as he bumbles around the Channel Islands and other Tax Havens. Hilary does venture out to Monte Carlo towards the end, once our sleuth has discovered the murderer. It's another delight of red herrings and clues boldly, yet somehow invisibly, displayed, all interwoven with delightful legal asides. Marvellous.

Sarah Caudwell.
The Sibyl in Her Grave.
Dell. 2000

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 12 October 2006

The fourth, and sadly final, tale of Hilary Tamar and the lawyers at 62 New Square. This time it involves a fortune-teller who has moved into the village where Julia's aunt lives, and then dies -- or, maybe, is murdered? This is all wrapped up with a tale of insider dealing, stolen Virgil plates, vultures, and carpentry, in Caudwell's usual delightful, bizarre style.

The coincidences are perhaps a little too thick on the ground (the two parallel sides of the insider trading, the convenient location of the flat in France, etc), but that hardly matters. Professor Tamar again gets to apply the practice of Scholarship to the puzzle, which unmasks the precise form of the crime, and the culprit, but only late in the day. Yet the clues, as ever, are always present, if obscured by the wealth of glorious, hilarious detail.