There is a saying, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, which tells us "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It was, perhaps, an unfortunate truism affecting the life, loves, and, er, taxes of a young English tax lawyer named Julia Larwood. The young woman ran afoul of England's Inland Revenue (the English equivalent of the American IRS with a number of irritating similarities), which wanted her to pay a tidy sum in back taxes. Julia, not having the money to pay, decided that what she needed was a trip to Venice and, if she could arrange it, a rather steamy (and brief) love affair. Of course, that would make it even harder for her to pay that tax bill, but since it was clear that she was going to owe them money either way, she might as well get some enjoyment out of it. She accomplished both of her goals - but it is perhaps unfortunate that the love affair was with a young man who turned out to be a tax lawyer for Inland Revenue. And the whole thing was definitely complicated still further by a most unforeseen - and, of course, regrettable - murder. And somebody left poor Julia’s passionately-inscribed copy of the year’s Finance Act near the body.
Still with me? Then let me explain that I have just outlined the central problem (well, one of them, at least) awaiting your reading pleasure in Thus Was Adonis Murdered, by Sarah Caudwell. It is a very funny and intricately planned mystery, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Sarah Caudwell, herself a British barrister specializing in tax affairs, wrote just four mysteries, all published between 1980 and 1999, the year before her death. Thus Was Adonis Murdered was the first of those novels – the third that I have read and reviewed on these podcasts. Caudwell’s four books center on a group of young barristers occupying chambers – that’s “law offices” to us – at number 62 New Square at Lincoln’s Inn in London. The young lawyers – Michael Cantrip, Selena Jardine, Desmond Ragwort and Timothy Shepherd – are joined in these stories by another young barrister from the next office named Julia Larwood – like Sarah Caudwell, a barrister specializing in taxes.
The books are narrated by Oxford University Professor of Legal History Hilary Tamar, whose friendship for the group may be explained by the professor’s past role as a tutor for Timothy Shepherd. Professor Tamar is more than just the narrator of the story – the professor ultimately solves the case and is able to provide proof of what happened in order to clear Julia’s name. But HOW the professor does so is revealed in a tightly woven plot with some absolutely wonderful description and commentary from Professor Tamar. At one point, for example, the professor is invited to an art exhibit. The owner of the gallery, Eleanor Frostfield, is a suspect and is, to be blunt, a pretty formidable opponent. Here’s what the professor says about meeting Eleanor:
“Eleanor was charming. That is to say, her manner seemed designed to merit that description: she displayed towards us a sort of girlish archness, such as a doting father might have found captivating in an only daughter at the age of eight. The effect was as of attempting to camouflage an armoured tank by icing it with pink sugar: a stratagem, in my view, doomed to failure.”
That’s pretty typical of Caudwell’s writing and of the professor’s narration. If reading Thus Was Adonis Murdered causes you to seek out the rest of the series and read it – well, it had the same effect on me. Enjoy it.