Friday, 11 May 2012

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Published 1981

Every now and then you find a book which is just pure delight from start to finish. This was one - I eked it out across as many days as I could, just to stay with such an amusing group of characters for a little longer. From time to time I'd stop reading and go back to the beginning, to savour the pleasure of the opening pages, the warm glow of finding a writer whose humour so deftly combines the sardonic with the zany.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered is in large part epistolary, a narrative device which always pleases me. Most of the letters are from Julia Larwood - a young barrister noted for her scattiness except as concerns the Finance Act - who is holidaying in Venice. Although addressed to her friend Selena they are intended for all her friends at 62 New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and are explicit regarding her reasons for suddenly signing up for an Art Lover's Tour - namely, that she is bent on amusement and intends to seduce the first available young man. Her friends, knowing that Julia is as accident-prone as she is nubile, are apprehensive, rightly so, as it turns out, because barely have her first missives arrived, than they learn that she has been arrested on a murder charge.

The young barristers at 62 New Square - Serena, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort and Timothy Shepherd (who is soon to leave for Venice himself to see a client) are determined to rescue Julia and there is much discussion of her letters, which are read over coffee, lunch and dinner (the first two to the despair of their clerk, Henry, who thinks they really ought to be doing some work). They are armed with Julia's descriptions of her fellow Art Lovers, a good deal of detail about her itinerary, and a blow-by-blow (as it were) account of her seduction of the exquisite Ned.

The story is actually narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar, former tutor of Timothy, in London for the purpose of conducting some research. Hilary's style, somewhat reminiscent of that of Horace Rumpole, would be ponderous were it not so delicious, and it is entirely consonant with this style that we never learn the gender of the writer. Here is Hilary, newly settled into a colleague's flat as temporary cat-sitter, and getting down to the business in hand:
On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself, it was almost eleven and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment. 
Hilary's work doesn't progress very fast, since Julia's dilemma demands longer and longer coffee breaks and lunches while her fellow Art Lovers are investigated. In pursuit of further information, the friends enlist the aid of Benjamin Dobble, a young man whom I instantly, despite his brown hair, cast as Boris Johnson. I mention this to give you a flavour of the kind of character to expect here - if you are not, however reluctantly, amused by Boris, you'll probable be indifferent to Caudwell's  wit and plotting, which both tend to turn upon niceties. For those who delightedly cast themselves upon Professor's Tamar's barbed erudition, there are three more books with the same cast: The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl in Her Grave.

13 comments:

  1. I love these books, finding them via a slightly foxed article a couple of years ago. She must be due to be reprinted soon surely. It's such a shame that she never had the chance to write more, I treasure my copies.

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  2. These books sound delightful! I will be looking for them. Thanks.

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  3. Humorous crime fiction can sometimes fall flat with me. But this sounds very good.

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  4. Never heard of the author or her books (which does not mean anything, really), so I am, once again, grateful to you for pointing me towards a read I will really enjoy!

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  5. Sounds like fun. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  6. Desperate reader, I think I missed that SF article, so I am off to track it down - I do like to read people agreeing with me :-)

    Margaret, I do know what you mean - but these aren't really humorous crime in that sense, it's more than the humour arises quite naturally from the characters, in the same way that it does in Rumpole. I guess it's a case of the story coming first and the humour second, and that the same is probably true for all fiction...no one is actually trying to be funny, so no one behaves out of character.

    Librarian, that's the fun of blogging, isn't it? We discover all those authors we haven't heard of yet, to the enormous detriment of our bank balances :-(

    Jenclair, yes, wonderful fun - these are really special.

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  7. Oops, sorry, Peggy Ann, missed you in my replies (I've got to get a better comment system!). I hope you'll find them and enjoy.

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  8. I loved these books when I read them late last year -- they're just fun and charming and awesome, and sometimes that is just what a girl needs in a book.

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    1. I've got the rest still to read - I want to dive straight in, but at the same time, to save them up...oh, decisions!

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  9. This sounds wonderful, and I love the cover illustration. And your comments about blogging and discovering new books are spot on - I always enjoy finding things I might not normally have read.

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    1. I like the cover, too. The Penguin edition of The Shortest Way to Hades is disappointing, just a generic Greek temple, but the other two are rather good.

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  10. I'd forgotten all about Sarah Caudwell. It's years since I read anything by her, but I do remember loving the s/he figure of Hilary. I expect my local library will have weeded them all out long ago, but I'm certainly going to hound them and see if they haven't got copies squirrelled away in the store somewhere.

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    1. Really, libraries have no business getting rid of books - they should just mine out a series of cellars underneath for storage!

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