RogerBW's Blog

The Shortest Way to Hades, Sarah Caudwell 18 August 2020

1984 legal mystery, second of Caudwell's Hilary Tamar series. When a Trust is changed to avoid tax, one of the parties puts a high price on her compliance; but it all goes through anyway, several months before she falls from a balcony during a Boat Race party.

As with the first book, it's the lovely mannered prose that lures one in. I found myself not entirely convinced by the solution to the mystery, but the writing was such fun that I didn't really mind.

"I've got Camilla," said Cantrip, "but I couldn't swing it that I ought to see her in conference. Absolutely sickening, having a fantastically attractive bird on one's brief and not managing to meet her."

"If you haven't met her," I said, "how do you know she's fantastically attractive?"

"If a bird's all set to come into five million quid," said Cantrip, "you don't need to meet her to know she's fantastically attractive."

There's a bit less distancing this time, and the principals get more directly involved (after all, making a fuss to the police might embarrass the clients), while managing to avoid being accused of murder. Even Tamar leaves England for a while.

Murder is unusual. The irritations, disappointments, envies and desires of everyday life are generally resolved in some manner less extreme. When it occurs, then, or is thought to have occurred, there must be looked for to account for it some unusual feature in the surrounding circumstances—some unusual wrong to be avenged, some unusual passion to be assuaged, some unusual advantage to be obtained.

A personal fortune of five million pounds is unusual. To gain possession of it, it is conceivable that someone might behave in a manner quite contrary to custom and convention. At a gathering, therefore, of the descendants of Sir James Remington-Fiske a murder would be not wholly unaccountable.

But one would expect it to be the heiress who was murdered.

The joy, though, is in seeing these people go through life with a combination of self-assurance and blindness; they are able to assume that nothing will really have all that much effect on them, and so it doesn't. They could be annoying; in person they almost certainly would be. But Caudwell always manages to keep things light and enjoyable.

"I did suggest, Julia, that it would be better not to eat too much of it."

"As always, I would have done wisely to act on your advice; but it was rather delicious fudge, and I was quite hungry. You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment."

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

"She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation. I have never known you, Selena, so indifferent to the demands of social obligation.

All right, one reads more for the language than for the puzzle, the solution to which is hinted at rather than actually clued, but it's pleasant to spend time again in the company of these people who are thoroughly self-confident but somehow not quote smug.

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Previous in series: Thus Was Adonis Murdered | Series: Hilary Tamar | Next in series: The Sirens Sang of Murder

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