Archive for November 12th, 2012

November 12, 2012

Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Except that this is really about all the Caudwell books. It is in fact a shameless attempt to bully the world into reading them.

An edited version of last weekend’s column.


The life of an evangelist is a lonely one. We know that we’re onto something amazing, we know beyond all reasonable doubt that the lives of those around us would be enriched by our discovery. We’re not sure why their eyes glaze over and they start to back away when we start in on our favourite subject, but if we persist, surely someday they’ll see the light.

I suspect that I may often be this boring on the subject of Sarah Caudwell, the author of four relatively unknown mystery novels. I first discovered Caudwell in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore many years ago when I picked up The Sybil in Her Grave on the strength of its cover art (which I later realised was the work of Edward Gorey). In the years that followed I found the other books in various unlikely places- all second-hand, somewhat battered and often mis-shelved.

This series of novels is sometimes called the Hilary Tamar series, after its narrator. Hilary is an Oxford don who seems incredibly talented at wriggling out of research and classes in order to spend time in London with a group of former students. These ex-students, now barristers in Lincoln’s Inn, find themselves regularly mixed up in murders and call on Professor Tamar’s expertise to solve them.

The earlier books are some of the brightest and funniest mysteries I have ever come across. Caudwell’s characters often sound as if they had come straight out of a Wodehouse novel – if one could imagine a Wodehouse novel in which sex, violence and drugs were things openly indulged in and discussed. Her scatty Julia Larwood has all the gormlessness of Bertie Wooster, combined with a susceptibility towards beautiful young men that often leads to difficulties. She is usually backed up by the rather more competent Selena and Ragwort, and by Michael Cantrip who is the only member of the group not to have been taught by Hilary (he, poor boy, was educated at Cambridge).  I love the bleak humour of The Sybil in Her Grave, the last of the series, but in a way I’m glad I got to read them backwards, discovering the first books last.

It may not say much about me as a reader that for a long time I failed to notice one of the most fascinating things about the series; that its narrator’s gender is never revealed. Hilary has a gender-neutral name, and none of the characters ever reveals the pronouns that would make it all clear. This is done in such an unobtrusive way that it’s easy to just make your own gender assumptions (in my head Hilary’s particular type of self-satisfaction codes him as definitely male) and carry on reading without ever noticing that you might be wrong. If I didn’t know how difficult it was to craft a sentence about a person without referring to their gender – and writing about Hilary Tamar has certainly shown me this – I’d be tempted to think it wasn’t a deliberate omission at all.

If I have a favourite of the books it’s the second in the series, The Shortest Way to Hades. The group get involved in the affairs of an heiress and her extended family. Soon a member of the family dies in mysterious circumstances – but it’s the wrong girl. Surely tradition dictates that it is the heiress who ought to have been murdered? The solution lies in the application of textual criticism to the works of Euripides. These books are not afraid to be clever.

I discovered Caudwell before internet book shopping was an option, and as a result each of my copies of her books has a story attached to it. But the internet has made things infinitely easier, and nowadays when I demand that a friend read this writer I can do so in the knowledge that her books are available online, and at a reasonable price. No one has any excuse any longer.