RogerBW's Blog

The Sirens Sang of Murder, Sarah Caudwell 24 June 2021

1989 mystery, third of Caudwell's Hilary Tamar series. The barrister Cantrip has been called to Jersey, though he's certainly not a tax expert. It turns out that the administrators of the Daffodil Trust are becoming unexpectedly prone to sudden death…

There is a mystery here, to be sure, but the mystery is really not the point of the book. The point is the language, the lovely rolling prose of and about people who may be capable of being quite unpleasant but whose jobs involve appearing to be appealing and friendly.

‘And if,' said Selena, ‘she does have designs on Cantrip's virtue, and he finds them unwelcome, he can always say no.' An upward movement of Julia's eyebrows, a downward movement of Ragwort's lips, signified disbelief in Cantrip's ability to pronounce the word.

Much of the initial narration is done by Telex, being grudgingly accepted in Chambers just as it was being replaced by fax in the real world, though fortunately not in all-caps. Later, Tamar starts gallivanting about to a variety of agreeable tax havens – at least once an agreement has been reached about expenses.

‘In short,' said Ragwort, ‘did this man do or say anything which he might not have done or said if you had been a young man introduced to him in similar circumstances and whose company he found agreeable?'

‘No,' said Julia pitifully, ‘absolutely nothing.'

It was infamous: Casanova would have blushed; Don Juan would have raised an eyebrow and murmured ‘Cad.' It was inconceivable (said Selena) that a man of mature years and wide experience of life should without design have adopted a course of conduct so precisely calculated to reduce Julia to a state of hopeless infatuation.

Cantrip's delayed return also means that someone else has to look after his mad uncle Hereward (DSO and bar from the War); that falls to Julia, who continues to be my favourite character in these books, and she does it in her uniquely Julia-ish way. Meanwhile, much of what's going on happens on Sark (pre-Barclay takeover), and indeed someone manages to fall from La Coupée. (Was it really an accident? Surely not.)

On Halloween and nights like that, he says, the Devil used to ride across the Coupee in a big black coffin, and the witches used to fly over from Guernsey on their broomsticks and dance on the beach with no clothes on. He's not sure if they still do it, but he thinks if they don't, it's because of television.

There's some enjoyable technical detail about blind trusts and a trick for disguising the true beneficiary, but mostly it's about blundering in and out of trouble and having a jolly good time in the process. One misstep is a rather tedious accountant who Just Doesn't Get It, but in the process of Not Getting It he has to be portrayed as both excessively devoted to the details of his work and excessively ready to take short-cuts, which doesn't quite hold together.

‘Forgotten?' I said. Though I have no personal experience of such matters, I would have supposed that the establishment of a trust fund in excess of nine million pounds sterling would infallibly ensure that one's name lived, if not in history, at least in the memory of one's accountants and investment advisers.

But one has to take this book in the spirit of its characters: come along on an adventure and find out what happens, rather than being serious about detection, for all the narrator claims to have known what was going on well before mentioning it to anyone else. (To what extent one may regard this as credible is another matter.)

‘It's the same one Mr Grynne was dealing with last year when -- when he died. They say it was awfully unexpected.'

‘No doubt it was,' said Selena. ‘One could hardly expect his doctor to have diagnosed a tendency to accidental drowning.'

As with the others, then, definitely not one for the technical mystery fan, and if you're the sort of person who gets peeved by anyone appearing "posh" you certainly won't enjoy this. But taken on its own terms it's great fun, and I continue to enjoy this series.

The trouble with real life is that you don't know whether you're the hero or just some nice chap who gets bumped off in chapter five to show what a rotter the villain is without anyone minding too much.

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Previous in series: The Shortest Way to Hades | Series: Hilary Tamar | Next in series: The Sibyl In Her Grave

  1. Posted by Rand Brittain at 12:33am on 26 June 2021

    My impression was that the accountant in question really thought he was being efficient, but had great difficulty in doing so because of that particular quality which Ragwort saw in him, which makes business ethics and productive crime both difficult.

    These books are among my favorites, and it's a great pity that they're hard to get in the States, and the really excellent audiobooks by Eva Haddon don't have a digital option (although I wish I had an alternate version by a male reader to pair with them). Constable and Robinson did some nice reprints that stopped before they got to the fourth book, for some reason.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:52am on 26 June 2021

    Welcome to the blog!

    I take your point, but to me at least the wasting half the morning on gossip and the business with the trust registrations don't feel as though they're of a piece with the proposal to skip lunch and keep working. I'm not saying it is entirely implausible, but it feels awkward, as though his character were being manipulated to fit into the cracks where particular attributes are needed.

    I don't hear these books being mentioned often – I think I found them through a "you may also like" on GoodReads, which has also produced some real stinkers, but I keep at it because of the occasional gem like this.

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