This is the fourth and last of Sarah Caudwell’s all too short series of detective novels featuring the sleuthing talents of Professor Hilary Tamar (Caudwell died in 2000). Having come down from Oxford to London (to avoid the Bursar of St George’s College), Hilary walks into two legal problems: Julia has been asked to give her aunt Regina some tax advice regarding some investments she and her friends have made; and Selena’s client has suspicions of insider dealing of one of his two possible successors as chairman of Renfrews’, an old and venerable merchant bank. Through an assortment of circumstances – the death of Isabella del Comino in Aunt Regina’s village, Parson’s Haver, and the refurbishment of the chambers of Hilary’s quartet of legal friends – the two issues become intertwined. Julia Larwood, along with Selena Jardine, Desmond Ragwort and Michael Cantrip of 62 New Square chambers, provide assistance and amusement in equal measure.
“My dear Selena,” I said, “few questions are impenetrable to the mind of the trained Scholar.”
“You mean it’s your usual mixture of eavesdropping and guesswork. Well, I’m willing to admit it’s quite a good guess.”
(pp 294, Dell paperback)
Like the first in the series, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981), much of the background to Hilary’s rather desultory investigation is given in long letters to Julia from Regina (and between Julia and Ragwort), and the mystery of at least one of three deaths in Parson’s Haver is certainly explained in another letter. Caudwell gets in some amusing and mordant remarks about the vagaries of builders, and paints interesting psychological pictures of Daphne (niece of the peculiar Isabella), who wants to be indispensable, Sir Robert Renfrew, and Regina, in particular. The characters are realistic, though sketched lightly: Daphne, for example, emerges as rather a horrifying character, though inadvertently so, and her interactions with Regina and Regina’s friends Griselda and Maurice are interesting.
The tone in general is wry and amusing, as with all of Caudwell’s books, with some touches of the macabre, particularly when Regina describes the flock of ravens which Isabella has in her house. Ironic humour is never very far away.
It was, as I have mentioned, the second week of August: that season of the year when the warm days of summer draw luxuriantly towards their fruitful and abundant climax and there is an almost universal impulse to give thanks in some way for the richness and generosity of the earth; that is to say, in the case of an upper-class Englishman, to go out and kill something. Cantrip was on his way to the grouse moors of Perthshire, and had looked in to say good-bye to Julia.
(p 116, Dell paperback)
Caudwell has a gift for description – of people, in particular – I liked her contrasting the looks of Ragwort and Cantrip, one painted in watercolours to convey “the tints of autumn” and the other drawn impatiently in a few strokes of charcoal. Although it has been twenty years since the publication of the first book, none of the main characters seem to have aged much, even if the trappings of life and the legal profession now include fax machines and laptops. Julia still smokes Gauloises, for example. Caudwell also treats same-sex relationships as a matter of course, and in fact there’s a very touching bit when Maurice is reunited with his much younger boyfriend after a misunderstanding. There’s no attempt to do social realism – nearly all the characters are well-off or of reasonably high social status – and almost everyone is terribly well spoken.
Still, it’s amusing and entertaining, the mystery is quite nicely twisty, but not impenetrably so, and the motives for the deaths are interesting and plausible.
The first three books, Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981), The Shortest Way to Hades (1985) and The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989) are now available as e-books, but The Sibyl in Her Grave is for some reason still out of print.
Published by: Dell Publishing (2000)