Quirky Whodunits

A huge argument in favour of good libraries is that when you are wandering around with nothing specific in mind, you can come across books by authors who you have never heard of. Not being wildly successful, the bookshops don’t usually stock them and there is not much that they suffer in the way of publicity so you can only happen upon them by chance. One such fortuitous discovery, for us, was Sarah Caudwell, a barrister, a pipe smoker and a writer of murder mysteries. Her detective Hilary Tamar, who is also the narrator of the books, is a professor of medieval law, an admittedly obscure topic, at Oxford. Professor Tamar has obviously sufficient time on hand to be swanning off to London and hanging out with a bunch of young barristers, some of whom used to be students at Oxford. They all spend their time, in between doing some work, smoking and drinking wine at ‘The Corkscrew’, helping or hindering in varying degrees, the solving of murder mysteries.

PS: The problem is that when you discover an author for the first time, you hope they have written lots and lots of books that you can catch up on. But Sarah Caudwell not only started writing fairly late in life but was also notoriously slow. As a result she had written only four books before she died in 2000.

LL: But just those four are so satisfying. Somehow, you feel content enough in reading them. Besides, considering the months and months it took us to find the first three books after having borrowed the fourth first from the library, we managed to stretch the experience out. It is, in a way, nice that she did not pander to the publishers’ ‘a book a year’ rule.

PS: I enjoyed the humour in all four books with the idiosyncratic characters who verge on the silly.

LL: The fact that the books have interesting snippets of life within chambers makes them that much more interesting. Juniors being terrorised by their court clerk, is something all lawyers can identify with.

PS: The mystery that none of the readers have been able to solve is the gender of Professor Tamar. Caudwell writers so beautifully that at no point is the Professor referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ by anyone.

LL: The best bit was in the second book where Selena after eating spiked fudge “cast off all conventional restraint and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment…”

PS: Yes! I remember that. It’s where she took out her copy of Pride and Prejudice and started reading it in the middle of a wild party.

LL: It is also interesting the way the plots are constructed by the sending of letters back and forth between the characters.

PS: The books are unashamedly politically incorrect. Professor Tamar is elitist to the extent that he/she makes Cambridge sound almost like a mental institution and excuses Cantrip for the things he says and does because he graduated from there.  Cantrip on the other hand is constantly referring to women as ‘birds’, and says things like “if a bird’s all set to come into five million quid, you don’t need to meet her to know she is fantastically attractive.”

LL: And the maddest character is Julia who despite her brilliance in tax law is dotty to the extreme.

PS: Caudwell’s writing style is really enjoyable and the mysteries are satisfyingly solved at the end of each book. I agree with Sarah Caudwell’s statement that “Readers who want fiction to be like life are considerably outnumbered by those who would like life to be like fiction.”


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