Caudwell, Sarah: (01-04) Thus Was Adonis Murdered; The Shortest Way to Hades; The Sirens Sang of Murder; The Sibyl in Her Grave

I read a bunch of books on last week’s cruise, and while I seem to be coming down with a cold, I would like to log them all before I forget them. Let’s see how this goes.

I vaguely associate Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar novels (Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sibyl in Her Grave) with Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel series, probably because I heard of them at the same time, and both authors died after writing just four novels, all mysteries with British protagonists. The Hilary Tamar series is set in present-day England rather than the Regency, however (the first three were published in the 1980s, the last in 2000), and is considerably wittier as well, in somewhat of a reversal of the usual expectation. (There is, though, something about the series that constantly made me think it was set in an earlier era; it might be the style, or it might just be that confusion with Kate Ross again.)

If I were going for a minimalist entry, I’d tell you to go look at the Edward Gorey covers (at Amazon: one, two, three, four) and then read the books if you liked them, because they suit the books very well.

(Don’t think I’m not tempted. But I did jot down notes while cruising, and I liked the books quite a bit, so I should try to do better by them.)

These are narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar, who is friends with four young London barristers who have a tendency to go abroad and get mixed up in murders. Hilary is a witty though unobtrusive narrator; indeed, a considerable portion of each novel is epistolary. [There’s a matter regarding Hilary that deserves comment, but I’m not sure how much of a spoiler it is, so I’m putting it in a footnote that people might skim past if they choose.]

Along with the wit, there’s legal geekery (which I found both clear and terribly amusing, but your mileage is likely to vary), and gender roles that have been inverted with a light tone (for instance, Julia spends a great deal of time wondering whether she’s admired a young man’s fine soul and splendid intellect sufficiently to ask him to bed). These amusements adorn admirable plotting—in the first novel, Hilary tells the reader that something was a red herring, and I was particularly taken with the realization that the novel managed to make the something a plausible distraction even after that comment. Sleight-of-hand is a reasonable description of all of these plots, I would say, though not in an unfair way.

[Note on the law geek stuff: are English Chambers substantially different from U.S. law firms, or is it just that conflict-of-interest rules are (or were) considerably looser? There are several occasions in which members of the same Chambers are on opposite sides of a case, which would not be permissible here.]

The first three novels each focus on a different one of Hilary’s barrister friends (who have much more personality than Hilary). In Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Julia Larwood, perpetually distracted member of the Revenue Bar, is arrested for murder while vacationing in Venice to distract herself from personal revenue problems:

Julia’s unhappy relationship with the Inland Revenue was due to her omission, during four years of modestly successful practice at the Bar, to pay any income tax. The truth is, I think, that she did not, in her heart of hearts, really believe in income tax. It was a subject which she had studied for examinations and on which she had thereafter advised a number of clients: she naturally did not suppose, in these circumstances, that it had anything to do with real life.

The Shortest Way of Hades opens with the proposed modification of a trust fund to keep the majority of it from being lost to transfer tax; a cousin of the likely heiress throws a last-minute wrench into the works—and then dies under suspicious circumstances a month after it’s all been sorted out. Not too much later, a series of odd incidents begin happening around the likely heiress, much to the discomfort of Selena Jardine, who encounters the family on a sailing trip. I particularly like the scene, early on, where Selena and Julia inadvertently attend an orgy and are given drug-laced fudge; as Julia describes,

“You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself with shame to the pleasure of the moment.”

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

“She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation.”

The third, The Sirens Sang of Murder, also jumps off from a tax avoidance scheme, specifically a discretionary trust intended to be paid to someone unnamed in the actual trust documents—except that the trustees, oops, no longer remember who’s supposed to get the money. (This doesn’t work any more, I believe, so please get legal advice before setting up your own discretionary trust.) Oh, and one of the trustees died the previous year, and another thinks she’s been followed. Enter Michael Cantrip, who knows very little about tax law but is willing to bodyguard said nervous trustee and to send long telexes in his Cambridge idiom:

Anyway, I promised I’d stick to Gabrielle like a postage stamp for the rest of the weekend, which actually sounded like rather a jolly scheme, and if any sinister chaps in false beards started leaping out of the undergrowth, I’d be on hand to biff them.

I say, Larwood, is this tax-planning business really as exciting as these Daffodil [the code name for the trust] characters seem to think or do they just make believe it is to make life more interesting? I mean, if I’d known it was all about codes and secret documents and biffing chaps in false beards, I wouldn’t have minded going in for it myself . . . .

The Sybil in Her Grave is somewhat different from the rest; yes, it’s set in motion by some legal problems (a minor capital gains question, and a suspicion of insider dealing), and we do get a few letters from the fourth member of Chambers, Desmond Ragwort, but it’s mostly a riff on the classic English village mystery. Moreover, I found its overall effect much darker and more psychologically disturbing than the other books—it was apparently published posthumously, and I am rather tempted to read as a meditation on chronic illness, though its punch does not depend on a non-literal reading. I think it’s probably a stronger novel than the others simply for this unexpected depth, but it is a change of pace that the reader should be aware of.

Almost-minimalist version of this entry: if you like either the covers or any of these quotes, go read the books, because you’ll like them. I certainly did.

Footnote: Begin possible spoilers: Hilary’s sex and gender (and a good many other personal characteristics) are never revealed. Since Hilary’s personal life plays absolutely no part in the stories (I half-suspect Hilary is asexual), this bothers me not in the least; but I know there are people who find this kind of thing very annoying. I personally have thought of Hilary as female since I first heard of the books, but that’s because my default association with “Hilary” is “Rodham Clinton,” for all that it’s spelled differently. end possible spoilers


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  1. It’s too long since I’ve read these (and in UK editions, which don’t have the Edward Gorey covers) and I have no recollection of the plot of any of theme: but it’s the voice that does it, isn’t it? That quotation about “the pleasure of the moment” is perfect. I think Hilary has slightly more personality than you suggest: there are moments when what s/he says gives away more – usually of a self-centred nature – than is said explicitly. Which is about as much personality as any of these cardboard characters display. As for that spoiler: I can’t help envisaging a female persona, if only because very often people who are reticent about their gender are women (who often have good reason for their reticence!). On the other hand, an Oxford academic lawyer even in the 80s is more likely to be a man. I rather suspect that Hilary has no gender, that Cauldwell never assigned one or the other.

  2. Jean, yes, I sometimes wondered why they were friends with Hilary at all, because as far as I could tell all that the friendship gained them was the opportunity to buy Hilary drinks or dinner; they didn’t seem to have much in common, which annoyed me a touch here and there. But by and large, except for the noisiness required of a mystery novel character who isn’t professionally involved in the criminal justice system, Hilary doesn’t have much personality.

  3. I forgot–the Caudwells are also notable for the way that everyone treats same-sex relationships as though it is entirely unremarkable that they are same-sex. Not realistic in the least, but charming.

  4. Just a comment in passing; do you know that Sarah Caudwell (not her real name) was the daughter of “Sally Bowles” of Isherwood and “Cabaret” fame?

  5. tarrant: I did not, but then I’ve never seen _Cabaret_ either, so I’m just ignorant all around. =>

  6. I love Sarah Caudwell! Kate, I’m glad you pointed out how Caudwell treats same-sex relationships as completely normal, and how Julia always feels pressured to admire the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the men she wants to get into bed with. There’s so much in Caudwell’s books that’s accepting of traits that would not be considered normal by many people. Also, everyone is so witty and charming. Remember how the vicar in “The Sibyl in Her Grave” says something to the effect of: “The church no longer believes in hell as a geographical place, like Paris or London. Not that anyone thought, of course, that it would be anything like Paris.”

  7. Faye: yes, I’ve been finding myself inclined to re-read them as comfort reading recently for their wit. I’m holding enough because I have such a backlog of unread books, but as the fall turns to winter I may well.

  8. Confusion with Kate Ross? “Sally Bowles” based on Jean Ross, the author’s mother. Any link there do you think. Probably just the coincidence of a common surname.

  9. my recollection is that i thought the second book was significantly weaker than the other three in terms of the plotting of the actual mystery, though the wittiness of the writing remains strong. do you recall if you would agree?

  10. lisa, I’m afraid I don’t recall. But I’m not really good at judging mystery plots.

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