Saturday, November 23, 2019

Comic Sans font

In a blog I read, I ran across a discussion of the text font "Comic Sans."  This is what it looks like.  I learned that it is the easiest font for people who are dyslexic to read ("it doesn’t rely on interchangeable parts among letters. That’s part of what makes it well-suited for posters").

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[i]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sarah Caudwell--Four Books

Sarah Caudwell[i]:
Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
The Shortest Way to Hades
The Sirens Sang of Murder
The Sybil in Her Grave

Sarah Caudwell, who worked as a barrister specializing in property and tax law, published her first mystery novel (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) in 1981, when she was 42.  Three other books followed at long intervals [The Shortest Way to Hades (1985), The Sirens Sang of Murder (1980), and The Sybil in her Grave (2000)]; all four remain in print, and all four are well worth the time of any lover of complex, erudite mysteries.  I recently began to reread the books, because Thus Was Adonis Murdered was chosen by the mystery fiction conference Magna Cum Murder ( as the one book for the con.  And rereading them has been a pleasure.[ii]

All four of her books were nominated for various mystery fiction awards, with The Sirens Sang of Murder winning the Anthony for best mystery in 1989.

The books focus on a group of five barristers in London (Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd); they are narrated by Hillary Tamar, a professor of (legal) history at Oxford, who in the course of the books does no teaching and little research.  It is Tamar, by the way, who unravels these mysteries, using what he refers to as Scholarship (most definitely with a capital “S”).  I have always thought, perhaps erroneously, that she intended five books, one focusing on each of the five.  If so, she did not get there.  Julia Larwood, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip…..all get their turn as the focus of one of the books.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered finds Julia (who is a bit absent-minded and perhaps somewhat indiscreet in her private life, while being extremely competent as a tax lawyer) about to leave for a trip to Venice.  It’s an Art Lover tour, and while Julia has no objection to Art it’s the other part of the tour she has hopes for.  And more so when she meets Ned as the members of the tour are arriving at the airport to begin their trips.  Ned is extraordinarily handsome-or beautiful, if you prefer—and traveling with his companion Kenneth.  And Julia is immediately smitten, and hopeful.

We learn this from a series of letters written by Julia and sent to Selena.  Given what I have experienced with mailing postcards from Italy to the States, I think it’s fair to say that the events recounted in the letters are not breaking news.  The breaking news comes from Cantrip (the women are almost always referred to by their first names; the men, almost always by their surnames), who, while vetting a newspaper’s copy for libel, comes across a teleprinter news report from Venice that one Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in the death, by stabbing, in his bed, of one of the members of the Art Lovers tour.  Of course, the the corpse is the beautiful Ned.

Much of the book proceeds from letters sent by Julia (and read aloud by Selena, to whom they are addressed.  Timothy (the only one of the men consistently referred to by his first name) is on his way to Venice to meet with a client who is facing a significant tax liability (resulting from his inheritance) unless he takes action to avoid it; he will, while there, try to determine how serious Julia’s situation is.  Meanwhile, all the members of the Art Lovers tour, except, of course, Julia, are allowed to return home.

The ensuing investigation, both on site in Venice and long-distance from London, grows complicated.  It seems that Ned’s personal life was fairly complicated, as was Kenneth’s.  And two members of the tour seem to have somewhat dodgy art and antique businesses.  But the story reads, in many ways, as a farce, until the very end, which, suitably enough, consists of letters between the two (living) people most involved.  Those letters turn the tale into a tragedy.

This is a stunning debut mystery, and one I have never been able, quite, to forget.

The Shortest Way to Hades and The Sirens Sang of Murder both deal even more overtly with estate and inheritance issues.  In The Shortest Way to Hades, a relatively complex multi-generational trust is to be would up, and the heiress, Camilla, is about to become a very wealthy young woman.  (Professor Tamar helpfully constructs the family tree, which I made frequent reference to.)  Before the trust is wound up, though, her cousin Deirdre dies during a party at Camilla’s Rupert Galloway’s flat in London (He is Camilla’s father.).  She fell, or jumped, or was pushed off a balcony/patio.  It’s relevant that all Deirdre’s cousins were present, although there’s no apparent connection between any of them and a multi-million pound legacy…except that the day before her death, she had mailed a letter to Julia Larwood which says, “I have found out something interesting and I want you to tell me what to do about it.”

I pass over such incidents as two rather unconventional parties thrown by Rupert Galloway.  And the difficulties in moving the estate forward through probate.  (It is worth noting that English inheritance law seems to be much more complex than American law, however.)

Shortly thereafter almost everyone winds up in Greece.  Two of Camilla’s cousins are the children of her aunt Dorothea (her mother’s sister); their father is a world-renowned Greek poet (Constantine Demetrious).  Camilla is there for visit.  And Selena Jardine, one of the barristers, and her lover (Sebastian Verity rising English poet and devotee of Demetrious’s work) are enjoying a sailing holiday in the Greek islands.  While there, Camilla goes overboard during a sailing expedition, at night, while her cousins were asleep, narrowly escaping serious harm.  And Selena also has a very different but still dangerous sailing accident.

And eventually Professor Tamar arrives in Greece.  The unraveling of all the events—from Deirdre’s death to Camilla’s and Selena’s mishaps—leads to his solution of the mystery.  Selena’s experiences are crucial to this unravelling.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is Cantrip’s story, mostly.  And the setting is among the Channel Islands, which are sort of English, but sort of not, especially when it comes to financial manipulation.  Cantrip has somehow become the counsel to the Daffodil Trust (a multi-million pound estate); the trustees meet on the Isle of Jersey (the Isle of Sark also plays a prominent part).  And he and Julia are co-writing, for purely mercenary reasons, a bodice-buster…whether this would have worked out, we never know, but it seems to me that too many of their characters are too obviously not invented.

The issue facing the Daffodil Trust is to trace the unnamed heir to the fortune.  And, of course, their meetings (on Jersey and later in Monte Carlo) do not go smoothly.  And an English judge, Arthur Welladay (to whom Cantrip refers as old Wellieboots), seems to be haunting the island.  He reports all of this in exceptionally long telex messages back to London, which must be exceedingly expensive.  And Cantrip becomes rather enamored of one of the financial people, the Countess Gabrielle di Silvabianca.  And in the course of the discussiona about finding the heir to the Trust, two members of the Trustees die.

(Back in England, Professor Tamar has been hired to do some archival research to assist in identifying the heir to the trust.)

The tale is quite tangled, as are the relationships between the trustees, the solicitor (Clementine Derwent),, and Cantrip.  Oh, and the Countess’s husband is also present,  By the end, though, the heir has been identified, Cantrip has had a n umber of adventures, and the murders solved.

The final book in the series, The Sibyl in Her Grave, is, as it turns out, a team affair.  Julia has the most direct connection to the events, as her aunt Regina lives in the village (Parsons Haver) which is the setting for much of the action.  There is, again, a legal issue to be resolved, involving insider trading.  There is Isabelle, the fortune teller and the frequent and secretive arrivals of a man in a black Mercedes.  There is an early death, of Isabelle (who appears to have dabbled in blackmail).  There is the fortune teller’s niece Daphne, who inherits Isabelle’s home (but with no money to pay for it or her living expenses) and her fortune-telling.  There is an investment banking firm with successor issues, as its chairman prepares to retire.

There’s the vicar, Maurice, and his budding relationship with a young man (Derek Arkwright, who arrived at the village on the day of the funeral).  There’s the interminable remodeling project at the offices (Chambers) of four of the barristers.  And there’s Professor Tamar being hired to help chairman of an investment banking firm decide who his replacement will be.  As was the case in the first two books, much of the story is told in a series of letters—from Julia’s aunt—which provide a great deal of information about the events in Parsons Haver.

The action precedes over almost a year, and what progress that is being made toward resolving all the issues (and they are all, eventually resolved) seems inconclusive.  Just as, in my reading, the first book (Thus Was Adonis Murdered) end as a tragedy, so does this book.  Caudwell was in ill health during the months leading up to the publication (in early 2000), and died, it appears, before the book was published.  

I will admit that these books might not be to everyone’s taste.  They are refined, indeed almost elegant.  I suspect some readers will find Hillary Tamar to be a bit precious as a narrator.  And others might find the legal complications more complication that is necessary.  I don’t see any of that as a barrier to my enjoyment of the books.  My only regrets are the lengthy gaps between their publication, and Caudwell’s death (which was, as I now see things, premature—I am, as I type this, older than she was (only 60) at her death).  I anticipate reading them again, and perhaps again, with great enjoyment.

[i] Caudwell is a pseudonym adopted for her writing; her name was Sarah Cockburn, and her half-brothers (half-brothers Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Cockburn, and Patrick Cockburn) were prominent English journalists.  Other members of her extended family were also well-known in one or another field of creative endeavor.

[ii] She was also involved in a project with Lawrence Block. Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovsey, and Doanld Westlake--The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime (edited by Jack Hill, and, apparently out of print.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered
Copyright © 1981 Sarah Caudwell
Dell Publishing
ISBN 978-0440212317

I first read Thus Was Adonis Murdered sometime in the 1980s; I found myself taking it off the shelf recently, because it has been selected as the “one book” for the mystery fiction convention I have most often attended—Magna Cum Murder—which will occur this coming weekend (October 25-25), in Indianapolis.  Magna is a small, and therefore intimate con, where we meet, from year to year, many of the same people, so that if feels much like a family affair.  And, for that reason, it seems to me to be an appropriate choice.

Not that this is a family mystery.  Rather, it’s that the principal (and recurring, in subsequent books) characters feel very much like a family.  Our protagonists consist of four young barristers in London (in alphabetical order), Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Julia Larwood, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd; and Hilary Tamar, an Oxford Don and legal scholar.Our tale commences as Hilary arrives in London to pursue his researches into causas in English law and Julia departs for a vacation in Venice (she has taken with her a copy of England’s tax code with her, hoping (well…) that she shall find some time to work on a brief she must master.  (Henceforth, I will adopt the choice made by the author, to refer to these characters as Cantrip, Selena, Julia, Ragwort, and Timothy, as they, and our narrator, Hillary, do throughout the book.)

Julia, who is a beautiful young woman (and is in search of a somewhat less than celibate holiday), is thought by her colleagues to be (outside of her legal skills) to be somewhat in need of a keeper.  But, as Selena explains, she has done everything possible to get her to the airport and off to Italy, where she will be part of a group of Art Lovers on a conducted tour.  What could go wrong?  Besides, Selena has enjoined her to write daily of the events of her trip, and she has done so.  From this point, a fair amount of the book consists of Selena reading aloud Julia’s letters to the rest of the group.  (Timothy does not hear much of this, as he must himself head off to Venice to deal with the inheritance and consequent tax problems of Richard Tiverton.  Julia, I should add, has some serious tax problems of her own to deal with.

Well, a good deal, as the group discovers when they receive a telephone call from Cantrip, who is absent for the moment, reading the copy of a paper (not a newspaper) called The Scuttle, to protect it from libel suits.  While there, he discovers, from a Telex that has arrived in the newsroom, that Julia Larwood has been detained for questioning in a murder.  The victim is one of the touring Art Lovers, Ned, who had become Julia’s target for non-celibate activities in Venice (he is described as tal, slender, and beautiful).

So here we are.  Julia is in Venice, detained by the police.  Timothy is en route to Venice to deal with his client’s tax issues (and to assist Julia), Selena is, periodically, reading one of Julia’s letters to the group.  Postal service between Venice and Italy, being what it is, leads to a significant lag between the events Julia describes in her letters and Selena’s receipt of them.

Hillary turns out to be out armchair detective, and by listening carefully to the letters they receive from Julia (and, later, from Timothy), he reaches some conclusions.  These will require the assistance of another of the Art Lovers and some surveillance, in London, of another.  Using, Hillary tells the barristers (and us) uses his undoubted (?) skill in reading and interpreting obscure legal texts, to reach a conclusion.  And that conclusion turns out to be right.

Parts of the tale are extremely funny, and Caudwell’s portrayal of her cast is masterful.  She succeeds in giving each character a unique voice—useful, because the story it told largely either from the letters written by Julia and Timothy.  But it is, murder, after all, and the motive for and means of carrying out the murder leave no doubt that this is not, in the end, a comedy.  It is, in fact, a tragedy, and the lives lost in it are enough to leave me, at the end, feeling the tragedy, and the losses of those concerned, quite deeply.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Copycat Photoblogging

Today (10/20/19) Chris Bertram posted a photo of a (I think) the beginning of a pro-EU demonstration in England.

In October 2002, I took this photo of an Italian Communist Party demonstration about to get underway in Rome.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

James R. Benn, The Devouring

James R. Benn, The Devouring
Copyright © 2017 James R. Benn
Soho Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1616959524
Also available as an ebook

The Devouring is the 12th entry in the excellent series of World War II mysteries/thrillers by James R. Benn, and it is a fine addition to the series.  Following their previous assignment (in The Blue Madonna), Boyle and Kaz, his friend, and companion throughout these books (the Baron Pytor Kazimeirski, the sole surviving member of a wealthy Polish family), have to enter Switzerland (somewhat illegally) to assist Allen Dulles in an effort to prevent funds lodged in Swiss banks from being used to support Germany (and to prevent those funds from being used by high-ranking Nazis from escaping with their wealth after the war).

On their way out of France, they encounter Lasho, a Sinti (more or less a Gipsy clan), who has found killing as many Germans as possible to be his only reasons for continuing to live.  They persuade him to escape with them to Switzerland, and he becomes integral to their mission.

As usual, Benn nails the details of the situation in Switzerland at that point in the war (mid-1944; his Afterword provides a good guide).)  Among other things, his depiction of a Swiss detention facility is shocking, and accurate.  And the general “neutral,” but effectively pro-German attitude of much of the Swiss government and population adds depth.  Also as usual, he incorporated real people (used, of course, fictionally—Allen Dulles, and Moe Berg, to name two) into the narrative, and has other characters based on others involved during this time.

While there is a murder investigation into which Billy and Kaz are drawn, the book focuses on one particular effort to obtain a huge amount of money (Swiss francs) and gold.  And there were huge deposits of both in Swiss banks, in numbered (and secret) accounts.  [This aspect of the story reminded me that in Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964), the action revolves around an effort to recover the funds, still held in a Swiss bank nearly 20 years after the war’s end, that belonged to a Jewish family.]  Both in fiction and in fact, the issue of those deposits was a very contentious issue for decades.

Benn handles his material wonderfully well, and he has not only created memorable continuing characters, he also populates his stories with rogues and angels and rogue angels as well as anyone whose works I’m familiar with.  Here, he keeps the tension high and the action brisk.  And he raises the possibility, near the end, just the possibility, of an outcome that will change the life of one of his characters.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Wages of Blackmail (re-posting)

The Wages of Blackmail

Donald A. Coffin

How much would a painting by Vincent van Gogh have sold for in the early 1950s?  (This question arises because, in “The Last Witness,” a novella originally in The American Magazine (May, 1955) and reprinted in Three Witnesses (Viking Books, 1955), one of the switchboard operators (Alice Hart) at Bagby Answers, Inc. owns a painting by van Gogh.  Here is the passage in which the Van Gogh is introduced and described and discussed (pp. 18-20 of the Bantam edition of 1994)

Her room was a surprise.  First, it was big, much bigger than the one in front with the switchboard.  Second, I am not Bernard Berenson, but I have noticed things here and there, and the framed splash of red and yellow and blue above the mantel was not only a real van Gogh, it was bigger and better than the one Lily Rowan had.  I saw Wolfe spotting it as he lowered himself onto a chair actually big enough for him, and I pulled one around to make a group facing the couch Miss Hart dropped onto[1]

As she sat, she spoke.  “What’s the flaw?”

He shook his head.  “I’m the inquisitor, Miss Hart, not you.”  He aimed a thumb at the van Gogh.  “Where did you get that picture?

She looked at it, and back at him.  “That’s none of your business.”

“It certainly isn’t.  But here’s the situation.  You have of course been questioned by the police and the District Attorney’s office, but they were restrained by their assumption that Leonard Ashe was the culprit.  Since I reject that assumption and must find another in its stead, there can be no limit to my impertinence with you and others who may be involved.  Take you and that picture.  If you refuse to say where you got it, or if your answer doesn’t satisfy me, I’ll put a man on it, a competent man, and he’ll find out.  You can’t escape being badgered, madam; the question is whether you suffer it here and now, by me, of face a prolonged inquiry among your friends and associates by meddlesome men.  If you prefer the latter, don’t waste time with me; I’ll go and tackle one of the others.”

She was tossing up again.  From her look at him it seemed just as well that he had his bodyguard along.  She tried stalling:  “What does it matter where I got that picture?”

“Probably it doesn’t.  Probably nothing about you matters.  But the picture is a treasure and this is an odd address for it.  Do you own it?”

“Yes.  I bought it.”


“About a year age.  From a dealer.”

“Are the contents of this room yours?”

“Yes.  I like things—well, this is my extravagance, my only one.”

“How long have you been with this firm?”

“Five years.”

“What is your salary?”

She was on a tight rein.  “Eighty dollars a week.”

“Not enough for your extravagance.  An inheritance?  Alimony?  Other income?”

“I have never married.  I had some savings, and I wanted—I wanted these things.  If you save for fifteen years, you have a right to something.”

(Subsequently (p. 68) we learn that Helen Weltz had received about $15,000[2] in excess of her salary during her three years of employment.)

My best estimate of the price at which such a painting might have been purchased is derived from the sale price of the painting “Irises,” which sold at auction in 1987 for $53.9 million. 
O. Chanel, in “Prices and Returns on Paintings:  An Exercise on How to Price the Priceless” (Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance Theory, V. 19, No. 7, 1994, p. 8), describes this as a “real return” to the previous owner of 12.5% (who had acquired the painting in 1948).  Between 1948 and 1987, the CPI in the US rose by a factor of about 4.7.  Applying that, and a real return of 12.5%, we can calculate the “Irises” must have been purchased for about $120,000 in 1948 (this ignores any insurance or other costs of ownership).  Now, “Irises” is, and has long been, regarded as one of the major masterpieces, so we should expect the painting in question in “The Last Witness” to have been less valuable than that.  Nonetheless, a purchase price in the early 1950s between $60,000 and $80,000 seems plausible.  Assume a large and good van Gogh painting (after all, it’s larger and better than Lily Rowan’s) might have been available for even half my estimate, and Wolfe’s conclusions that is a “treasure” in an “odd place” is accurate. 

All of which means that the blackmail racket being run by Clyde Bagby and Guy Unger  must have been quite lucrative.  In addition to the $5,000+ per year being paid to their employees [that’s $20,000[3] per year for the Rhinelander office, and more for the other three (older and presumably larger) offices in the Gramercy, Plaza, and Trafalgar exchanges (p. 2)], Bagby and Unger were presumably retaining an even larger share for themselves.  [The Rhinelander office had four boards with room for 60 lines each ((p. 3).]  At a guess, the operation had to have been pulling in something on the order of at least, and probably more than, $200,000 to $300,000[4] per year.  While all of this seems possible, if not necessarily plausible; this amounts to a very extensive blackmail operation, and one of which no law enforcement agency had, apparently, received any indication.  Maybe blackmail is a plausible career…until Nero Wolfe gets involved.

[1] This must be a big room, big enough to contain a bed, a couch, at least two chairs, presumably a chest of drawers or two, and a fireplace.
[2] That would be about $150,000 in today’s prices.  In general, adjusting from 1955’s values to today’s values is easy—just multiply by 10, or just add a zero at the end of the 1955 value.
[3] $200,000 today.
[4] $2 million to $3 million today.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Quote, unquote

Ran across this, that I posted on April 28, 2011, and thought enough of it to drag it up tp the top:
"What d'you remember most about the sixties?"

Haynes didn't reply for several seconds. "The music," he said. "And, in retrospect, the innocence."

As memories, and sentiments, go, that's just about perfect.

(Ross Thomas, Twilight At Mac's Place, 1990, p. 53)