I have said several times that L C Tyler has written some of my very favourite contemporary comedic crime stories, so when he suggested I might enjoy the novels of Sarah Caudwell, I admit I took the plunge immediately. Rather embarrassingly then as I began my purchase of a Kindle version of ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ (I know, I know, but our house is simply overflowing with books and records and there is only so much space and only so much that one can part with for the charity shops and anyway I am going to admit that I rather like the fact that I can go away on a holiday and not take an additional suitcase filled with paper) I was helpfully informed that I had already bought this item on 25th August 2019. Even more embarrassing was the fact that when I loaded the book it opened at page two or three, highly suggestive of the fact that perhaps I had failed to be immediately captivated and had given it up in pursuit of something shinier and newer. Or, as would have been more likely, older.
Now there is of course something of a tradition of legally trained professionals writing crime and detective fiction. In the UK there have been the likes of Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert, John Mortimer, Alexander McCall Smith and the inestimable Martin Edwards, whilst in the USA there has been a veritable plethora of lawyers as crime writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turrow and of course John Grisham. Marcel Berlins, incidentally, wrote a fine, short piece about the practice for the Guardian back in 2004. No surprise then that Caudwell’s own standing (as Sarah Cockburn) in the profession means that all four of her books appear to be so convincingly rooted in the legal world, and that her own speciality of tax law is a recurring theme throughout. If that sounds potentially stuffy and hopelessly dull then be assured that Caudwell treats it all with a splendid blend of assured intellectual precision and self-deprecatory wit.
Whilst legal language and terminology abounds, throughout the four novels there are also numerous Classical and literary references, almost all of which are lost on an uneducated oik such as myself. Yet such is the lightness with which these references are touched that it matters not a jot. Or at least, not so much of a jot. Indeed, there is a delicious line in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ that feels marvellously and personally apt: “[He] takes things so seriously. He’s a Scotsman, you know, from Ayrshire or somewhere like that. I think his father was a miner. There are certain hardships to which such a background does not, I suspect, inure one.” Well, quite.
Written and published variously between 1981 and 2000 (the last published posthumously), curiously the suite of recurring characters appear to remain very much of the same age and personality throughout, even as technologies and the world advances around them. Indeed, it is largely these references to technologies that mark the passage of time, since much of the narrative structure in the books is in the epistolary style and as such the format of these move from the traditional letter through the quaint ‘telex’ and back, curiously enough, to letters in the final novel when one might have expected the development to include email. That it doesn’t embrace email perhaps says as much about Caudwell’s awareness of the nature in which she utilises the form as it does about a mistrust of technology. There is certainly a sense, particularly with the implausibly lengthy ‘telexes’ in ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, that Caudwell is (perhaps not so) subtly drawing attention to the fact that this is literary device. All is unreal.
Lisa Hopkins has written at length and with insight about the epistolary style and other connections between Caudwell and Jane Austen and her piece reminds me that whilst I certainly enjoy Austen in film, in print there has always been something of a barrier. This suggests that it is hardly the themes of Austen’s work that I have struggled with, but rather the somewhat florid late 18th/early 19th Century language. Why use ten words to make a point when twenty, punctuated by commas and additional asides that, admittedly, might sparkle with wit and wisdom, will suffice just as well? In truth Caudwell does embrace this style unapologetically, which may explain my original (virtual) shelving of ‘Adonis’ at first attempt. Perhaps this means too that I am finally prepared to enjoy an Austen. Perhaps not.
Certainly there are innumerable lines from Caudwell’s books that I can imagine an Austen character in a BBC adaptation delivering, dripping in entitlement and period costume. She is eminently quotable. A favourite, from ‘The Shortest Way To Hades’ is this: “A particular tone is used by young men apparently ingenuous to make observations apparently innocent in a manner apparently respectful with the intention of being extremely impertinent: one can hardly hope, in academic life, to be unfamiliar with it.” In the subsequent ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’, Caudwell’s key narrating character Hilary Tamar returns to the subject of Youth with another charmingly biting barb: “One becomes accustomed in academic life to the unreasonableness of the young. They desire not merely to be understood, but to be understood by telepathy; not merely to be permitted to tell their troubles, but to be prevailed on to do so.”
Much is made by some of the fact that Caudwell never resorts to the baseness of a gender reveal for Hilary, but I admit that from the off I simply made an assumption that Tamar is a woman. Perhaps this is an example of conflating/mistaking the author as narrative voice, or perhaps there is just something in how the character reveals themselves (or more accurately fails to reveal themselves) that feels vaguely feminine. Or at least, appears not particularly masculine. Perhaps too this reluctance to assign gender to Tamar is a means of underpinning the necessarily detached observational logic of the academic/historian/detective. Gender, Caudwell seems to suggest, is really rather an irrelevance in such a context. One wonders what they would make of the 21st Century’s obsession with ever-increasingly macro/micro definitions of identity based on individual sexual preferences. I for one would rather have liked to read those thoughts.
If Austen used her novels to critique the gentry and the rigid social structures of 18th Century England then there is certainly something similar happening throughout Caudwell’s. Populated almost entirely by characters from what one might judiciously call The City and it’s environs, the first three novels in particular are ones that I would very likely have balked at had I come across them when first published in the 1980s (there was an eleven year gap between ‘The Sirens…’ in 1989 and the final novel ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave). Filled with entitled, financially wealthy and self-obsessed individuals, they are situations and characters I would have studiously avoided in fiction as in real life. Some forty years on I am finally at least willing to allow them entry into my choice of fiction.
Flitting between Venice, Corfu and The Channel Islands in the first three novels, much of the narrative, plot and motive for crime centres on inheritance, tax avoidance and, inevitably, the greed that such topics engender and/or encourage in humans. If it is a not altogether positive outlook on life then that is surely a large part of the point Caudwell is making. There is certainly something of an admission of implicit collusion between lawyers and those who, shall we say, may be less scrupulous in their attitudes to the world than we would like to think admirable. Early in the first novel for example comes the observation that “The funeral rites of the rich are a signal for vultures to gather: among whom one may class, with all respect, antique dealers and the Chancery Bar.”
Yet whilst Caudwell admits to the slippery, necessarily confused relationship between lawyers and moral certitude she nevertheless allows herself the pleasure of having her characters pronounce variously barbed opinions. On bankers for example: “He is, after all, a banker – that is to say, he spends his life persuading people to pay for the privilege of lending him money and again for the privilege of borrowing some of it back.” On the Gentry: “he’s as nutty as a fruitcake and ought to be put away somewhere he can’t do any harm – House of Lords or somewhere.” And on men, generally: “My Aunt Regina, so far as I can discover, doesn’t believe that men progress much morally or intellectually after the age of six, and she treats them accordingly.” Ouch.
Additionally, there is a lovely light meta-fictional atmosphere that occasionally wafts across the pages. In particular, at the start of ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’ a couple of her recurrent characters are themselves involved in an attempt to pen a novel in the Romantic Crime genre, set within the realm of the legal profession. Julia admits that they are keen “to appeal to as wide a public as possible” adding that it seems clear that “readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.” Elsewhere Caudwell has Hilary pondering: “would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation.” And my favourite, which feels particularly observant and poignant: “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel – it is curiously difficult to do otherwise.’”
By the time of ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’, however, there is a definite sense of a certain darkness falling, and I rather like the fact that this gloom encroaches on a setting which is the (stereo)typical English Village because in doing so Caudwell both self-consciously mocks the gentility of the stereotype and exposes the faint undercurrents of darkness that exists in, say, Christie’s Miss Marple stories. There is too perhaps an inescapable sense of awareness of death and finality hanging over the book, given that Caudwell died of cancer in January of 2000 and so never quite lived to see it published. So whilst it most certainly continues in the marvellously entertaining and engaging manner of the preceding three books, it also certainly is a book that allows in a degree of bleakness and, dare I say it, existential weariness. There is, in its conclusion (and without giving away too much in the form of spoilers) an acceptance of the hand of chance, of logic not always being able to explain occurrences, and of the peculiarly unjust hand of Fate.
There is too a tremendous passage where Hilary Tamar reflects on truth and reality: “…when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters – they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence.” Tamar concludes by suggesting to her friend and colleague Julia that “Sincerity… is a quality not to be trusted.” Ah, the studied, deeply ingrained cynicism of the academic, the lawyer or, indeed, the novelist. As insightful and prescient in 2021 as it was in 2000 and will no doubt be in 2042. Where would we be without it?
Finally, almost as a concluding aside, interestingly it appears that Caudwell’s books were at the time (and perhaps still) more popular in the USA than the UK, and certainly the American paperback editions have marvellous Edward Gorey illustrations. There is therefore a great temptation to pick these up from the second hand sellers and be damned with the ever-receding amount of available shelf space. Life is too short and all that.