Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
The Shortest Way to Hades (1985)
The Sirens Sang of Murder(1985)
The Sybil in Her Grave (2000)
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 (https://www.bsu.edu/academics/centersandinstitutes/eb-bertha-c-ball/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.