Sunday, May 06, 2007

Murder Most Funny

I have always been a reader of mystery and detective stories; I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew, thrilled to the adventures of The Three Investigators, discovered Sherlock Holmes at an early age, segued into Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and after that there was no looking back. Ngaio Marsh, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Morrison, Edmund Crispin, Jacques Futrelle, Anthony Berkeley, Elizabeth George, sundry Victorian and Edwardian rivals of Arthur Conan Doyle: I read them all, and then some.

Of course, I could not hope to read everything in the field, and there came a time when I began to drift away from the mystery story and read other things. I rather lost touch with the genre in the late 1980s, which perhaps explains why I did not hear of British author Sarah Caudwell until within the last two years or so, when a friend began to mention that he thought I'd quite like her mysteries. Knowing that this friend had yet to steer me wrong as far as book recommendations went, I decided to take a look, and was able to pick up three of Caudwell's books on a trip to Seattle last year. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of World Fantasy Award reading and judging at the time, and the books, alas, had to go on what is referred to, somewhat wistfully and a touch erroneously, as my 'to be read shelf': wistful because I sometimes wonder if I'll ever get to them all, and erroneous because it's not so much a shelf as a small bookcase.

Last week, however, something—a feeling in the air, an alignment of stars, a touch of rheumatics, call it what you will—told me that the time was right, and I picked the first Caudwell novel, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, off the shelf and commenced to read. I must have been all of four pages in before I realised that here was something very good indeed, and I polished the book off over the course of two nights, then eagerly went on to the second and third books, finishing the third off last night. The good news is that there is more Caudwell yet to read; the bad news is that 'more', in this case, only amounts to one more title, because the author only wrote four books before dying in 2000 at the age of sixty-one.

Caudwell came from a distinguished family: her real name was Sarah Cockburn, her father was the writer Claud Cockburn, and her mother was actress and journalist Jean Ross, who is regarded as the original of the character Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. Caudwell (to use her pen name) graduated in Classics from Aberdeen University and read Law at St Anne's College, Oxford before being called to the Bar and practised as a barrister in Lincoln's Inn. It should therefore be no surprise that her books are as erudite as they are witty (and they are very witty indeed), and that she should have chosen to set her mysteries against a backdrop of a Chambers in Lincoln's Inn, inhabited by several young barristers who take turns acting as principals and chorus throughout the novels. There is the cool, calm, and competent Selena Jardine; Julia Larwood, brilliant when it comes to navigating the intricacies of the Finance Acts but decidedly hapless when it comes to navigating her way to a table without tripping over briefcases and spilling prawn salad on unfortunate patrons; the unflappable and incorruptible Desmond Ragwort; and the raffish Michael Cantrip, the sole Cantabrigian amongst a flock of Oxonians, who often sounds as if he had stumbled in from a particularly exuberant Wodehouse novel. Around these central characters hover Julia's Aunt Regina, who has had four husbands and yet retains an admirably clear view of life: 'It's true of course, as I suppose you know by now, that very good-looking men aren't to be trusted, but you must also remember that even quite ugly men often aren't to be trusted either. So in the end you might just as well enjoy yourself and be let down by the good-looking ones'; Timothy Shepherd, another barrister in the chambers who is often obligingly absent; Henry, the clerk, constantly trying (and failing) to maintain some semblance of order; Cantrip's Uncle Hereward, a formidable ex-Army officer who has an eye for a pretty girl, an endless fund of reminiscences, and a handy way with a gun; and Basil Ptarmigan, the smooth-tongued senior barrister.

And then, of course, there is Professor Hilary Tamar, a Fellow of St George's College, Oxford, Tutor in Legal History, amateur detective, and firm believer that Scholarship is the servant of Truth and can own no other allegiance. Hilary is considerably older than the others, and while it is mentioned that the Professor was once Timothy's tutor, no other explanation is given as to why Tamar has formed such a close bond with Selena, Julia, Cantrip, and Ragwort. Indeed, throughout the novels (which take a somewhat epistolary form and are narrated by Hilary) there is no clear indication of whether the Professor is male or female. In other hands this could turn into a cheap running gag or an irritating distraction; it's a tribute to Caudwell's skill—and the Professor's vividness as a character—that it's neither, and in the end it doesn't matter whether Hilary is a man or a woman: Professor Tamar is a wonderfully drawn character, and deserves to be amongst the best-known names in English detective fiction. That this is not the case is perhaps partly attributable to the fact that the four Tamar novels were written over a period of twenty years: Thus Was Adonis Murdered was published in 1980, The Shortest Way to Hades appeared in 1985, The Sirens Sang of Murder came out in 1989, and then there was a gap of more than a decade before the final book, The Sibyl in Her Grave, was published, posthumously, in 2000.

Those looking for a classic English murder mystery in the cosy style, with all the clues fairly distributed for the keen-eyed reader to spot, will not be disappointed in the Hilary Tamar novels; but they are much more than that. The central characters are engaging to a man or woman; there are liberal amounts of erudition and classical allusion; the language is never less than beautifully clear and wonderfully literate; the plots are intricate enough to satisfy the most demanding aficionado of the whodunit; and the settings are vividly depicted (Venice, Cyprus, the Channel Islands, and that most beloved of murder mystery locales, the English village, complete with map). As if all that were not enough, the books are wonderfully funny; be careful if you read this in a crowded room, lest you be overcome with a desire to quote large chunks aloud—if, that is, you can stop laughing long enough.

I have one more Professor Tamar novel (The Shortest Way to Hades) left to acquire and then read, although I will do so with the sad knowledge that once the last page has been turned there will be no more Sarah Caudwell books to read. When the fourth and final novel, The Sibyl in Her Grave, was published, Amanda Cross wrote of the characters, 'I hardly know whether to cry for joy at their return, or to weep for the finality of this bittersweet adventure.' At least the four books will always be there on the shelf; and while I don't often re-read books, I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be dropping in to No. 62 New Square, Lincoln's Inn Fields, and then nipping off for a glass of Nierstein at The Corkscrew, once again, just to check up on Selena, Julia, Cantrip, Ragwort, and the wonderful Hilary.

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