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Mystery Review: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell (1981)

One doesn't like to appear vulgarly inquisitive. But if everyone one knows has suddenly started murdering everyone else, it would be terribly nice to know about it. - Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered

I stumbled upon author and tax barrister Sarah Caudwell (née Sarah Cockburn)'s obituary by accident - I can't even begin to think what I might have been searching for - and I have to say, I've been delighted by the result of my strange late night Googling. After reading about her, I immediately purchased her first book, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, and my only disappointment upon finishing this book was that I knew there were only three more purely Caudwell books to come.

But to focus on Thus Was Adonis Murdered first: the book follows nosy Oxford don Hilary Tamar (gender never specified), a specialist in medieval law, and a group of barristers practicing tax and financial law in Lincoln's Inn. I was worried after the first chapter that I might not be able to get into this book, because even as a lover of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, I found that the voice Caudwell uses - just on the edge of overly pedantic and certainly old-fashioned - took me a couple chapters to get used to. Once I adjusted, though, the book was a wonderful romp. (Stick with it!)

This book focuses on the trials and tribulations of one of the barristers, the brilliant but completely impractical Julia Larwood. Despite being a tax lawyer, she hasn't fully realized that she also needs to pay taxes on her earnings as a barrister, and after exhausting battles with the Inland Revenue on that subject, she finally throws up her hands and decides to take a vacation to Venice. Her friends, fellow barristers Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, and Timothy Shepherd, are concerned about Julia's ability to navigate Italy, even as part of an "Art Lovers" Tour Group, and load her down with books and recommendations before she goes. They also insist that she write to them so they can keep a distant eye on her progress and enjoy her vacation vicariously through her.

It's primarily through Julia's letters that much of the rest of the book unfolds, as Julia embarks on her Art Lovers' tour, sees fabulous art, and gets mixed up in some single lady on the prowl shenanigans. It all takes a turn, when her personal copy of the Finance Act is found next to a murdered man who she had, shall we say, enjoyed getting to know during her vacation. Now under suspicion of murder, Tamar and the gang sweep in to investigate, with Tamar - not burdened as the others are with various legal cases demanding attention - taking the lead to clear Julia's name. The final solution is tightly plotted.

As I said - this book is a romp. Erudite and very funny, it's also well-plotted, with a fair chance for the reader to work out a possible solution. Despite the book being nearly forty years old, it takes a thoroughly modern view towards gender and sexual preferences. Due to the dense language and deep classical allusions, it's not a zippiest of reads, although it's not very long book, so best to take your time and savor the jokes.

In sum: 4 Sherlocks, with a Wodehouse for British humor and a Richardson for the use of epistolary structure. Best enjoyed at either a dimly lit wine bar (a la the Corkscrew) with an assortment of olives, cheese, and nuts, or, should you be so lucky, at an sunny outdoor cafe, preferably in Venice, with cicchetti conveniently at your elbow.

For more background on Caudwell, a great article I found on Caudwell here, from Mystery Scene magazine.

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