Mystery Review: The Shortest Way to Hades, Sarah Caudwell (1984)


Professor Tamar – Mr Shepherd rang and said please come to London as soon as possible. You can stay at his flat and he will give you dinner. He says it has something to do with a murder. - Sarah Caudwell

The Shortest Way to Hades is the second installment of Sarah Caudwell's mystery series featuring a set of tax and estate planning barristers, along with Oxford don and amateur sleuth (would one say busybody?) Hilary Tamar.


This story centers around the Galloway family, who, with their barristers from Lincoln's Inn, have figured out a clever way to save three million in taxes on the five million pound Remington Fiske estate. The primary beneficiary is the beautiful young law student Camilla Galloway. Despite a slight hiccup when her dreary cousin Deidre demands more money from the settlement, everything seems to be coming up roses for the lovely Camilla.


Not so for Deidre, who dies while watching the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, pitching over the side of her uncle's balcony while - supposedly - alone. Tamar is called back to London as the barristers of Lincoln's Inn worry that perhaps Deidre was murdered, since Deidre had reached out to one of the barristers, Julia Larwood, with a mysterious message shortly before her death. With little evidence of a murder, however, their investigation stalls.


That is until Selena Jardine, one of the barristers, heads to Greece for a long overdue sailing holiday with her boyfriend. They run into the Remington Fiske clan in Corfuand are startled to learn that all of the cousins, Camilla included, just narrowly survived a mysterious boating accident. Someone certainly seems to have it out for all of the Remington Fiske heirs, and Tamar fears that the killer may have it out for Selena and her boyfriend too. The Professor races to Corfu to uncover the murderer, in the most dangerous showdown of his or her career yet.


This book, like the previous Caudwell I reviewed, is an absolute treat. Erudite and clever, it also has some throwbacks to Golden Age detective fiction, including a family tree at the front. One of the highlights are some of the side stories as the barristers accidentally find themselves in compromising circumstances. The best of these is when Selena and Julia manage to stumble their way into a risque swingers' party, and after tasting some special fudge, Selena sits in the middle of the party reading Pride and Predjudice and Julia expounds on tax law. There's also a cricket match in Corfu, the worst temporary typist imaginable, and some low level blackmail.


In summary: Four Sherlocks with a Wodehouse for humor. Best enjoyed with a large bowl of fresh grapes, preferably while lounging on the balcony of your own villa in Corfu - just stay a bit away from the edge, in case you also have some potentially homicidal relatives. (I'm happy to house-sit the villa for you, by the way, homicidal relatives and all. I know not to drink poisoned tea.)


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