RogerBW's Blog

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell 02 December 2016

1981 mystery, first of Caudwell's Hilary Tamar series. A young barrister, Julia, is taking a tour in Venice; she gets a gorgeous young man to bed, and a few hours later he's found dead, stabbed, with her copy of the Finance Act next to the body.

This is a book told at removes: Hilary Tamar, the narrator and a law professor who taught one of Julia's partners, spends all of it in London, and the other barristers of Julia's chambers pass on Julia's letters. There's some interviewing of suspects in London, but mostly it's recounted at second hand.

The captain has announced that we are about to take off. He has recommended us to read the safety booklet. I have done my best; but it is all in pictures, with nothing to explain them. There is a picture of a female passenger sitting upright, then an arrow, then a picture of her leaning forward with her head in her hands. Is the only thing required of me in an emergency to lean forward and put my head in my hands? If so, I shall be equal to it. I may, however, be missing some deeper significance. The artist intends, perhaps, to depict an act of contrition -- the lady is preparing to meet her Maker. That is a less agreeable idea.

The writing is self-indulgent, but in a formal and pleasing way; it's that style of writing about something terrible, or glorious, in such a charming way that one only slowly realises how significant it is.

They are a decorative little group -- it would be a difficult taste that was pleased by none of them. Between Ragwort and Cantrip there are certain points of resemblance: they are the same age; of similar height; both thin; both very pale. But it is for those whose pleasure lies in the conquest of virtue that Ragwort's delicate profile and demure autumnal colouring have a most particular charm. Cantrip, in sharp contrast, has eyes and hair of a witchlike blackness, more pleasing to those whose preference is for a savour of iniquity.

The barristers are not detectives: they theorise wildly in advance of their data, then try to bend new data to fit their pet theories. Tamar is, deliberately I'm sure, very dry, and comes over more in the narration than in the action.

Respect for property cannot always be paramount. I remembered moreover that Cantrip had acquired at an early age a fair expertise in the art of lock-picking -- I suppose it is one of the options in the Cambridge law syllabus.

Caudwell worked as a barrister specialising in property and tax law in the 1960s and 1970s, and I'm willing to accept that her young barristers are plausibly realistic, even if they do rather a lot of petty point-scoring about whose turn it is to buy the next bottle of wine.

"The little Signorina Julia," she said, "is of course a most charming girl, most intelligent and serious" -- Julia's attentiveness to her lectures on the Gothic and the Byzantine has evidently made a good impression -- "but as for committing murder -- no, Signor Shepherd, she would not know how to." Graziella shrugged her shoulders, as if admitting some minor defect in an otherwise admirable character -- she herself, no doubt, would, if she thought it necessary, commit a very competent murder.

(Oh, and in a book from 1981 the idea that someone might be a lesbian or bisexual is regarded as a matter for momentary social embarrassment because of confounded expectations, nothing more serious. Good-oh!)

I will certainly be reading more of this series. Followed by The Shortest Way to Hades.

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