Death, taxes, and telexes
Hilary Tamar, a professor of legal history at Oxford, is devoted to the sacred cause of Scholarship, not to mention Truth. But Hilary (gender unspecified) regularly ditches that high calling to instead investigate and solve crimes in Sarah Caudwell’s four mystery novels about British barristers. I read them all recently and enjoyed the heck out of their arch, erudite, epistolary style.
The novels revolve around Hilary and hir friends, three young barristers at 63 New Square, and a fourth character in a tax practice next door. Hilary is always just dropping in at Chambers to find someone to buy wine and dinner — always just in time to hear about a complicated tax or inheritance case that inevitably ends in mysterious deaths. “I am a historian,” says Hilary, “my profession largely consists in speaking ill of the dead.” The friends — Cantrip, Ragweed, Selena and Julia — all have personalities and backstories, but they’re vaguely sketched and tend to contribute to the stories mostly clever, allusive dialogue and bottles of wine. Hilary is also an enigma as to age, gender, and any interests besides being well-fed, insulting Cantabrigians, and ditching as often as possible an ongoing research project on the concept of causa in medieval common law. Hilary is a don, full stop.
The four novels, all named after classical references and with cover art by Edward Gorey, each take place in a different locale, evocatively sketched by Caudwell. In Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981), Julia takes a vacation in Venice but a young man from her tour group is found dead — with Julia’s copy of the Finance Act beside the corpse. The Shortest Way to Hades (1984) involves a complicated Probate case and takes place on Corfu.
The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989) is my favorite. In the other novels, the characters are forver writing each other letters (theoretically to supplement their short phone conversations) but in this one Chambers has been equipped with a telex. Cantrip is attending a meeting of a trust in the Channel Islands when mysterious happenings ensue — I suspect this is the only epistolary novel ever told through telexes.
The last novel, The Sibyl in her Grave, published after Caudwell’s death in 2000, is an English village mystery. But the characters seem rather uncomfortable to be so far in the future, and one wishes she had just set the novel back in the 80s.
Caudwell, the pen name for Sarah Cockburn, seems to have been a character herself, a pipe smoking crossword puzzle enthusiast who worked as a tax lawyer before quitting to be a full-time novelist. The novels demonstrate a fond exasperation for English law as well as for the usual tropes of mystery novels. In The Sirens Sang of Murder, an engraved pen is found in a suspicious place, and Julia objects to its obviousness as a clue. “I do not doubt,” Hilary replies, “that in a crime novel having any pretensions to modernity, the pen would be quite inadmissible. As a mere historian, however, there is nothing I can do about it. Nature, as we know, does imitate Art, but I fear that she too often falls short of the highest standards.” I admit that I never thought that novels about tax law could be so entertaining.
Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer who lives in Detroit. She cares about people, places, and things. Find her on Twitter as @publichistorian