I’ve had an absolute nightmare of a month punctuated by flu, flooding and our work’s annual unannounced inspection from one of the regulatory bodies we answer to. The inspection itself is fine but because we never know when they’re happening until the inspectors are walking through the door, they’re super disruptive to your life outside of work – I had to get my Mum to walk my dog while I stayed late, and because I carpooled in with someone in another department who wasn’t part of the inspection, had to walk home in pitch blackness through actual fucking hailstones. I needed something to distract myself with. Something light and comforting and funny.
Naturally, my thoughts turned to murder.
More specifically, they turned to the Hillary Tamar mysteries by Sarah Caudwell. I read the first in the series, ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’ last year and found it hilarious and clever and exactly the sort of murder mystery I love most – an intriguing puzzle with a memorable cast of characters and a genuine pleasure in the esoteric. Even tax law becomes the source of great fun in Caudwell’s skillful hands.
‘The Shortest Way to Hades’ is the second book in the series and, by way of happy coincidence, concerns the fortunes of a group of cousins, the eldest of whom, Camilla, is set to inherit a very large sum of money and naturally wishes to arrange her finances so as to avoid a large tax bill. The cousins were represented by the 4 barristers of Lincoln’s Inn, Julia, Selena, Cantrip and Ragwort. When dreary cousin Deirdre falls to her death, Julia instantly suspects foul play – but, as Hillary points out, why would anyone kill the wrong cousin? Deirdre was only second in line to the inheritance, after all, so nobody would benefit from her sudden death as long as her cousin Camilla remains alive. However it isn’t long before the group realise that there’s no particular reason anyone should have to murder the cousins in order…
So far, so standard mystery novel, yeah? But absolutely not! Because this mystery is told through flashbacks of Julia and Selena accidentally attending the sort of party where “fudge of a distinctly North American flavour” is served and clothing is optional until Selena “cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment.” How, you may ask? “She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation. I have never known you, Selena, so indifferent to the demands of social obligation.” The chaos escalates – although it never tips over into slapstick – until the police arrive to raid the flat while both Julia and Selena are high, Selena fending off persuasive nudists while Julia is “unconvincingly disguised as a schoolgirl”, hiding on the balcony onto which all the other partygoers are heedlessly throwing their illegal drugs. The adventure is summed up by Ragwort:
“It just shows,” said Ragwort, “how careful one should always be to behave like a respectable householder. Even if one isn’t.”
“Especially if one isn’t,” said Julia.
The whole nudist party story, by the way, lasts for 13 pages and is recounted only to illustrate a single point – that Selena saw the balcony from which it was thought Deirdre had fallen and knew that Deirdre could not have seen the boat race she was supposedly watching before her death from there. That could have been a single sentence but you don’t regret the full telling of the story. Not having it would have deprived us of one of the greatest clusterfucks I have ever read – the kind where I had to keep stopping, putting the book down to laugh so hard I was in tears and then mouth ‘Oh God, what next?!‘ before I could carry on. It was magnificent in its escalation, with the pot and the orgy and Julia trying on some of the sexy costumes in their client’s wardrobe more out of politeness than any actual interest in the woman showing them to her.
There are a lot of little clues to the mystery, the really satisfying sort where you can see how they line up on a reread. The family at the heart of the case – cousins, aunts and uncles, fake policemen, even the family’s solicitor – all have their own individual ambitions, foibles and dark secrets gently prodded into the light and, when news reaches Hillary and the others that Camilla barely survived a sailing accident, it seems that any of the family could have been tempted to kill their cousins to get their hands on the cash, making for a thrilling denouement as Hillary, Selena and Selena’s partner Sebastian are caught up in events that leave them fearing for their own lives. But where Caudwell really shines is her acerbic wit that keeps even the longest digressions on inheritance tax, textual criticism or – even worse – cricket from dragging and turns them into something genuinely fun to read.
Picking out a favourite passage would be far too difficult, especially as nothing and nobody are safe from Caudwell’s dry mockery. Haven’t we all, after all, known or sometimes been a Julia – the kind of person whose “strategy for dealing with real life, on those rare occasions she came across it, was to keep very quiet and hope it would go away”? And who wouldn’t love to be like Selena, cool in the face of danger posed by both murderers and marriage proposals alike?
That said, I will leave you with Selena’s thoughts on romance, a fine lesson for us all:
“I have sometimes suggested, I think, that when your fancy is taken by a young man of slender figure and pleasing profile you should not disclose at too early a stage the true nature of your interest. Young men, I seem to remember saying, like to be thought of as people, not as mere physical objects: you should therefore begin by seeming to admire their fine souls and splendid intellects and showing a warm interest in their hopes, dreams and aspirations … I am now obliged to mention a slight pitfall in the approach I have recommended: the young man might actually tell you about his hopes, dreams and aspirations.”