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Mystery Review: The Sirens Sang of Murder, Sarah Caudwell (1989)

I say, Larwood, is this tax-planning business really as exciting as these Daffodil characters seem to think or do they just make believe it is to make life more interesting? I mean, if I'd known it was all about codes and secret documents and biffing chaps in false beards, I wouldn't have minded going in for it myself. - Sarah Caudwell

The third of Caudwell's novels and winner of the 1990 Anthony Award, The Sirens Sang of Murder features a number of the Michael Cantrip's deep thoughts, as evidenced by the quote above. Caudwell enjoyed poking fun at Cantrip throughout the series - as a Cambridge graduate (educated, as Tamar as told us "in the broadest sense"), he speaks in an amusing Wodehousian patois. Or, in this book, largely through telexes to the crew of barristers stuck back in London. (N.B. If telexes were before your time too, here's more information on them.)

Yes, for some reason, non-tax expert Michael Cantrip has been sent to the Channel Islands to help administer the Daffodil Settlement with a group including a solicitor, a Jersey lawyer, an Irish businessman and French banker, all working for a trust company set up by a Swiss bank. There are two issues Cantrip quickly uncovers - the first is that nobody seems to be able to remember exactly who the beneficiary of the trust should be, as the secret file that had the name has been lost, and the second, more pressing matter, is that someone seems to be bumping off all the people involved in the Daffodil Settlement.

This novel follows Cantrip, largely through his telex updates, as he makes his way across the Channel Islands, France, and Monaco to uncover a killer. Or, really, to suspect all the wrong people and eventually get locked in the wine cellar of a French restaurant. It all depends on your point of view. Professor Tamar, technically working for the solicitor to find out who the beneficiary of the settlement is, manages to unravel the case while getting in trips to Monaco and the Channel Islands.

The Sirens Sang of Murder is another thoroughly enjoyable excursion into the world of tax law and murder. Caudwell is, as ever, funny, and manages to make the couple of key points around tax law that matter for the plot understandable for the lay reader without slowing down the plot. Cantrip's observations are, as always, a hoot. And, if I were in the business of it, the novel also provides a guidebook to various tax havens around the world. (For more on this, the Planet Money series where they set up a shell tax haven corporation is truly fascinating.)

In short: another four Sherlock read from Caudwell - I might even round this one up a half Sherlock, along with an honorary Wodehouse. I'd recommend enjoying this one while relaxing with a "globlet of fruit and multicolored ice cream" after a busy day of board meetings in the tax haven of your choosing.

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