Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

I read all my Sarah Caudwell’s back to front, and have now just finished ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ – the first book she wrote. I don’t know if it’s because I became more used to her style as I went on but I found each book better than the last, ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ is easily my favourite. The plotting is ingenious, the characters fresh but fully formed, the humour light and sparkling – altogether a very satisfactory read and for a first novel really impressive.

I wonder if Caudwell had lived longer what she would have gone on to write? I feel the four Lincoln’s Inn books are possibly made even better for leaving the reader wanting more, but it’s also a crying shame that such an entertaining writer’s career was cut so tragically short. It also occurs to me that Caudwell is the sort of writer who might struggle to get into print today. I don’t imagine that her books where ever huge sellers, it seems more likely that they would have been steady performers that earned their keep on the shelves but didn’t make anyone rich. Though having said that I notice since last quarter’s ‘Slightly Foxed’ article that the second hand prices on Amazon have crept up and up, hopefully someone will notice and consider a proper reprint.

The things I love about Caudwell are the things that I fear would make her unlikely to find a voice today. Without being particularly high brow she comes across as unashamedly elitist. Culture and education, especially a classical education are key elements in all four books. Reference to the works of Shakespeare abound – but are not confined to the best known plays, art and architectural references also abound. A working knowledge of the classics isn’t really necessary as any major references are explained, but I suspect the more you know the more you appreciate.

The plot in ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ is a peach, revolving around some particularly obscure points of law and scholarship and the writing style – well it’s very stylish. Wordy is the best (though sadly inadequate) description I can find. Lovely, exquisite, polished, lengthy and unlikely prose with plenty of humour in the same vein. There’s a certain amount of worldliness – amazingly Caudwell manages to make a woman’s serial and predatory pursuit of beautiful and very young men seem like an endearing character trait rather than seedy, I don’t think she’s ever unseemly or particularly gratuitous. It’s always a relief to read a writer who knows when to shut the bedroom door.

I can’t rate Caudwell highly enough; she strikes the balance between intellectually satisfying and lightness of touch with particular panache and throws in the odd ingenious murder as well. One of the unsolved mysteries of the series regards the sex of Hilary Tamar, Oxford Don and sort of detective. Professor Tamar reminds me of any number of male academics – I think he’s definitely a he but there is always a tantalising element of doubt.

To end all I can say is this; if you’re not already a convert and you come across a Caudwell - read it, she’s the best discovery of the year for me and this is the year that I discovered F.M Mayor so I consider that a compliment.


  1. This is the only Caudwell I have so far read. I enjoyed the skilful way that Julia was "presented" to the reader 'in absentia', as it were: she was in Venice, in trouble, and we heard the members of her chambers discussing her, and read her letters to them before we met Julia herself. The reader's mind was therefore full of ideas about Julia, some conflicting with others.
    I look forward to the others.
    Curzon Tussaud

  2. I have to agree with you. This is my favorite of Caudwell's sadly limited output. Ah, the wit, the erudition!
    Great review.