RogerBW's Blog

The Sibyl In Her Grave, Sarah Caudwell 22 October 2021

2000 mystery, fourth and last of Caudwell's Hilary Tamar series. Julia's aunt Regina has an annoying new fortune-telling neighbour, with an even more annoying droopy niece. Julia's colleague Selena has a client who wants to know which of the underlings at his bank is abusing his position with insider dealing. Which would all be just a series of nuisances, until people start to drop dead.

It's the recipe as before: gorgeous prose, and self-satisfied but still sympathetic people. Even with three deaths, there's considerable doubt as to whether any murder has been committed, and the narrator comes up with some thoroughly incorrect theories.

"That, certainly, was of great assistance in establishing how C died. C's death, however, was peripheral to the main subject of my investigation—that is to say, the deaths of A and B and the insider-dealing problem."

"But Hilary, most of your theories about those matters have turned out to be entirely wrong."

"My dear Selena," I said, "to be always right is the claim of the charlatan, not of the Scholar. The mark of true Scholarship is a fearless and unflinching readiness to modify one's theories in the light of new evidence."

Mysteries can fail by making things too obvious, or by making them too obscure – and of course the ideal level of obscurity will vary from one reader to another. Caudwell pitches this at about the right level for me, but at the same time keeps in plenty of a non-mystery sense of fun, and with a third hand avoids being too mocking about the ends of lives or of the personalities of everyone involved. (Usually I find that there's a tension between a complex plot and complex characterisations; most authors don't seem to get both into the same story, and perhaps many mystery readers strongly favour one strand or the other or at least set their balances somewhere other than where mine is.)

When I say all and sundry, I mean Isabella del Comino, as she calls herself, though I doubt if that's the name on her birth certificate, or on her marriage certificate, if she has such a thing. Which I dare say she has—men can be complete idiots sometimes.

One does have to be in the right frame of mind for it, of course. I can see how one might end up being irritated rather than amused by these people. But the prose seduces me and the red herrings are enjoyable, and that the action is happening in a small English village is a small extra bonus for this English mystery fan.

It's true, of course, as I suppose you know by now, that very good-looking men usually 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.

The solution has the benefit of matching not only the evidence but the personalities of the people involved. Perhaps the other books were a little more lively, but I still enjoyed this vastly.

"I should prefer you," said Selena, "not to mention Benjamin Dobble in my presence. I regard him as the direct cause of all our troubles."

"That," said Ragwort, "is surely not quite fair."

"Fair?" said Selena, in a tone of astonishment. "What makes you think that I have any desire to be fair? What I want is someone to blame and I have chosen Benjamin."

Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn) died before the book was published, and I'm glad to say nobody has attempted to continue the series. These four books are what we have (as well as a small number of short stories), and they're really very good indeed.

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Previous in series: The Sirens Sang of Murder | Series: Hilary Tamar

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