This coming weekend, the 28th annual Malice Domestic conference will take place in Bethesda, Maryland. About 600 people, including mystery authors, fans, agents and publishers, will get together for a weekend spent meeting each other and talking about their - our - favorite topics: traditional mysteries. Saturday night, the annual Agatha Awards, named in honor of Agatha Christie, will be presented to the winners at a festive banquet. Among the other honorees, Malice Domestic usually includes a "Malice Remembers" award as a tribute to a classic mystery author.
This year, the honoree for Malice Remembers will be Sarah Caudwell, who passed away in 2000. Between 1980 and 1999, Caudwell wrote just four wonderful, clever and very witty mysteries about a law firm of English barristers who, unfortunately, had a nasty habit of getting themselves into trouble. The person who wound up getting them out of trouble was named Hilary Tamar, a professor of legal history at Oxford University, who served as the narrator for the books. Caudwell quite deliberately never let the readers know if Hilary was a man or a woman (the name, of course, can be used by either) and never suggested what Hilary's age might be. That's part of the fun of the books.
I've just finished reading my second Sarah Caudwell book, The Sirens Sang of Murder, originally published in 1989. It is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
In The Sirens Sang of Murder, one of the young barristers in the law firm, Michael Cantrip, finds himself in the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, working on a tax law case involving a trust that is worth a fortune – if the lawyers can figure out exactly who is supposed to get that fortune. The Channel Islands, it seems, were among the most popular sites in the world for organizing tax avoidance schemes to protect people who generally lived in other, much more heavily taxed countries. The trust has been set up quite properly (although, depending on your point of view, it may go beyond legal tax avoidance and into illegal tax evasion) – but the names of the parties involved have been disguised in the trust papers and disguised so well that nobody seems to have any idea of the name of the true beneficiary.
At any rate, somebody appears to have other plans for some of the lawyers working on the trust fund – for two of them have met mysterious deaths very suddenly. Certainly they could be accidents – but that really doesn’t seem likely. And Cantrip, not surprisingly, is beginning to feel rather worried – if not for himself, then for other members of the legal team. He begins sending messages back to the home office, laying out the details and the growing tensions. And the end result is that Hilary finds himself or herself – sorry – heading for the island of Sark in an effort to get Michael Cantrip out of there alive.
Caudwell was, in fact, a barrister, who specialized in tax law and trusts and manages to make that complex (and, to an American, often nearly incomprehensible) subject both interesting and bitingly funny, for a great deal of the book consists of pointed satire aimed at lawyers. The plot is clever, with plenty of twists, and the writing is marvelous.
This weekend, the English author and mystery historian Martin Edwards will be moderating a panel discussion, along with another fine historian, Douglas Greene, author Katherine Hall Page, and Poisoned Pen Press publishers Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, all talking about Sarah Caudwell and her books. So far, I have only read two of the four - The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Shortest Way to Hades. I'm looking forward to reading the remaining two books in the near future. If you enjoy the high wit of a comedy of manners, combined with an interesting and cleverly plotted mystery in the classic tradition, you can't go wrong with Sarah Caudwell.