(Constable & Robinson 2002, originally published 1981)
This, like Delusions of Gender, was the result of a review by another book blogger, this time a more recent one from Jenny. The review immediately made me search out Caudwell’s books (sadly now out of print, but available from second-hand dealers) and buy the first in the series of “legal whodunnits” with amateur sleuth Professor Hilary Tamar.
Hilary (whose gender is interestingly not specified nor obvious) is a historian specialising in mediaeval law who has come down to London from Oxford to undertake some research. On the first day in town – and after barely an hour’s work – the professor retires to a coffee house and there finds three friends, all junior barristers of the chambers at 62 New Square: Ragwort, Cantrip and Selena. The slightly older Timothy, once Hilary’s pupil, has been called away by their clerk. And the last in the group, the chronically disorganised and self-absorbed tax specialist, Julia, has been allowed to go on holiday. Poor Julia is having immense struggles with the Inland Revenue (and is herself a tax consultant), and her holiday is something of a break for her which she cannot really afford.
She’s gone to Venice, on an Art Lover’s tour, and there meets a strikingly beautiful young man with whom she becomes enamoured, despite discovering that he works for the hated Inland Revenue. When the young man is stabbed to death, Julia becomes the main suspect, and is arrested. Julia’s friends know instantly that she can’t possibly have done the murder, and Hilary, although more hindered than helped by Julia’s friends, manages eventually to both deduce what must have happened and how to reveal this to the Italian police.
The story’s told entirely through the activities of the group in London and through letters from Julia and, later, Timothy, so the immediacy of Julia’s circumstances, not to mention her interactions with her fellow Art Tourists, is not present. Caudwell’s writing is polished and ironic in tone, the narrator’s voice (Hilary) is intellectually snobbish and contrives to be amusing. Hilary has a good deal of contempt for a character who “had to work hard” for his First in Economics (later deciding that this was a malicious rumour and that the man in question is a good egg), not to mention for Cantrip, who is “a Cambridge man”, and thus far inferior to one who studied at Oxford.
I asked if Timothy’s absence, at least, was attributable to pleasure. Selena and Ragwort shook their heads.
‘Got nobbled,’ said Cantrip.
‘Nobbled?’ I repeated, a little perplexed by the expression. Cantrip is a Cambridge man – it is not always easy to understand what he says. ‘Nobbled? By whom, Cantrip? Or, to adopt the Cambridge idiom, who by?’
The style is rather mannered, and characterisation is slight – there is a real change in tone at the end of the novel, as Caudwell reveals the motivation for the crime, and while this is effective, it is quite a change from what has gone before. Julia’s friends do take her plight seriously, but don’t sympathise at all with that of the victim (perhaps understandably, since they never met him except through Julia’s letters).
For the time this book was written (it’s clear from the teleprinter at The Scuttle‘s office that the story is set in 1977) the characters are astonishingly undated – though there are references, for example, to Julia being able to smoke on the plane taking her from London to Venice – and modern. It’s taken as a given that Selena and Julia are competent barristers (in fact, Selena’s implied to be more than competent), even if Julia is highly incompetent in her domestic life (leading to the whole not paying taxes calamity), and it’s nowhere implied that the men of the group are any better lawyers. Likewise, Julia’s passion for the aesthetically beautiful Ned is more sensual than mental, and there is no authorial condemnation for her pursuit of sex – which is refreshing (though it does give the police the main reason for suspecting her of the murder).
Anyway, I concur with Jenny’s recommendation, and will try to acquire the next three in a sadly short series (Caudwell died in 2000).