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.

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