Review: Sarah Caudwell – Thus Was Adonis Murdered

AdonisMoira, the excellent blogger over at Clothes in Books gave me a sneak preview of her review of one of her favourite crime novels that she’s written for the Remembering Petrona website. Like many of the book reviews that I see on the site that was set up in memory of crime fiction reviewer Maxine Clarke, it made me immediately want to read the book. Moira’s choice of crime novel is Thus was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell and although you’ll have to wait for Moira’s review on the website, she was kind enough to send me one of her second-hand copies which I gather she snaps up whenever she sees them.

I loved the book. It had a slightly dated feel to it; published in 1981, it reminded me of some the crime books I read as a teenager. But I can well see why it is one of Moira’s favourite reads.

Sarah Caudwell was the pseudonym of Sarah Cockburn, a British barrister, and the book features a group of Lincoln’s Inn barristers who discuss the predicament of one of their number, Julia Larwood, who has become embroiled in a murder on holiday in Venice. The character of Julia is seen firstly through a series of letters she sends her friends in London and also through the narrator, Hilary Tamar, a Professor of Medieval Law who observes the comings and goings of the group. Julia is portrayed as a scatty, lovable innocent and it is entirely in keeping with her character that finds herself suspected of murder. It is up to the group, therefore, to help her out of her predicament.

The quality of the writing is the first thing that strikes you. The language is witty and wry, especially the dialogue. For example:

‘Julia did very well,’ said Selena, ‘not to fall into the lagoon. How beastly of that woman to suggest she’d had too much to drink.’
‘Most uncharitable,’ said Ragwort. ‘Julia, as we all know, needs no assistance from alcohol to make her trip over things.’

Once you’ve got into the flippant tone, the book makes very entertaining and intelligent reading.

The narrator, Hilary Tamar, is an enigma. Of unclear gender, he/she casts a wry eye over proceedings and the although shocked by Julia’s predicament, the whole fiasco is portrayed as a bit of a game for the group. I suppose the book could be classified as a ‘cosy’ mystery particularly as there is a timelessness about the story. Really, it could easily have been written in the 1930s or earlier and I’m sure this is part of the attraction for the author’s legion of fans.

Thanks again to Moria for sending me one of her copies of the book.

18 thoughts on “Review: Sarah Caudwell – Thus Was Adonis Murdered

  1. So glad you liked it! Very good review, you really explain what’s enjoyable about it. I loved the combination of its being amusing (as you say, when you get used to the style) AND having an excellent detection plot.


  2. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

    The ambiguous sex is interesting, isn’t it? I still can’t figure it out. One assumes, far more likely to be a bloke (era, background, etc.,), but I rather like the possibility that it isn’t (esp. as I went to a women’s college, so I’m very open to reading the role as female). I have one more of this series to read – saving it for when I need something vintage and madcap.


  3. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – Dated or not, this really sounds like a great read. No wonder Moira liked it so well. And honestly, taking myself back to the ’80’s is kind of fun. All of that and wit and a good story too? Sign me up.


  4. Sarah, I read this book a few years ago and I enjoyed it but did not continue the series. I do have at least two more in the series, and mostly because I love the Edward Gorey covers. Maybe I will read another and see how I feel about them now.


  5. I read these perhaps ten years ago and loved them but when I tried to get them out of the library for a re-read I found they’d sold them off. I wish I’d known they were going to do that; I’d have snapped them up in an instance. Now I’m on the look out for second hand copies too.


  6. This sounds like a decent read – I do enjoy a bit of cosy crime every now and then but it isn’t something I often think to reach for. I like the idea of getting to know the character through her letters, though I know some people really dislike that particular narrative device. Which character is it that provides the running link through this series? I’d be very intrigued if it is Hilary Tamar. It’s one thing to shroud the gender of a main character in secrecy for one book, but I imagine it’s very difficult indeed to sustain this through several novels.


    1. Hilary Tamar is the running link, I believe Marie. I’m not sure how the character manages to sustain it’s gender secret in other books but it’ll be interesting to see.


  7. Beth2

    Good luck in tracing all the books – I find them very hard to come by. Some are available on Book Depository, but not all, and secondhand websites are also not much help. They are on my list I carry always in case a secondhand bookshop, fete or charity shop should cross my path.


  8. Pingback: The Best of May’s Reading | crimepieces

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