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Mystery Review: The Sibyl in Her Grave, Sarah Caudwell (2000)

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

[W]hen someone's entire life is based on pretense, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters—they believe that they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence. Sincerity, my dear Julia, is a quality not to be trusted. - Sarah Caudwell

The last of Sarah Caudwell's novels, published shortly after her death, The Sibyl in Her Grave is also the most cleverly plotted of all four of her novels. It's also the closest that Caudwell comes to a cozy, as this novel is set primarily in a small English village, the home of where barrister Julia Larwood's Aunt Regina. (This novel, of all of Caudwell's works, feels like it would translate the best into a Midsomer Murders episode.) It's also by far the hardest of Caudwell's books to summarize, as it's jam-packed with plot, with several different interlocking crimes finally pulling together into a satisfying conclusion.

The novel kicks off with Aunt Regina making a killing in the stock market, but spending the money before she's paid any of the taxes on the gains. Julia manages to get her out of this tax mess, but suspects that there is some kind of leak - after all, her aunt didn't just get lucky, but was receiving stock tips. Somewhat coincidentally, Selena Jardine, another barrister, is working with the chairman of a bank where insider traders originated - with the two most likely culprits the two bankers who are next in line to run the firm.

Before Julia and Selena able to unmask the inside trader, a death happens in the village. The woman who died was hardly beloved: an objectionable psychic, Isabella del Comino. She had set up shop in the rectory, destroyed a much-loved garden, and had an aviary of ravens in the house, while mistreating her (admittedly dreary) niece Daphne. Indeed, there are a wealth of suspects, including the man in a black car who used to regularly visit her. But it's not completely clear if she's been murdered.

There are other near-deaths and crimes, both in the village and without, including some involving Aunt Regina's friends and, separately, the bank chairman. Blackmail, theft, false identities, and one broken heart leads Hilary to suspect that there is more to Isabella's death than a mere accident, but it's not until two more deaths occur that s/he is able to unravel the multitude of crimes and frauds that were part of this tricky, complex plot.

Summary; Four and a quarter Sherlocks, primarily due to a very clever ending. This book best enjoyed with a pot of tea and your favorite biscuits from your favorite aunt.

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