Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell: B+

From the back cover:
For young barrister Julia Larwood, it was to be a holiday of romance as well as flight from the tax man; in short, an Art Lover’s Tour of Italy. Reduced to near penury by the Inland Revenue, Julia could hardly afford such luxury but she’d be in hock to the Revenue either way so why not? But poor, deluded Julia—how could she have known that the ravishing Art Lover for whom she had conceived a fatal passion was himself an employee of the Inland Revenue? Or that her hard-won night of passion would end in murder with her personal, inscribed copy of the current Finance Act found lying a few feet away from the corpse.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first of only four mysteries penned by Sarah Caudwell prior to her death, introduces Professor Hilary Tamar and a group of young barristers working in London in 1977. One of the barristers, chronically absent-minded Julia Larwood, takes a vacation to Venice and, while there, meets and beds “the enchanting Ned” and ends up the chief suspect in his murder. Aided by Julia’s improbably lengthy and descriptive correspondence, Hilary and the barristers attempt to assist Julia from London. This involves many scenes of the group reading her letters over coffee and wine, and eventually conducting some discreet inquiries of their own, since, as they have no official legal status, they cannot compel anyone to actually talk to them.

The structure of this mystery is quite fun, actually. Although it’s highly unlikely that anyone would spend hours of their vacation writing such detailed epistles to friends back home, it’s still an interesting literary device, and I liked the idea of there being a group of sleuths rather than only one. Hilary recounts the events retrospectively from his/her perspective (these mysteries are famous for successfully obscuring Hilary’s gender), which is fitting because it’s Hilary who eventually solves the whole thing by way of extreme attention to detail honed through years of scholarship—the clues are there if anyone would but notice them, but I certainly had not until they were pointed out in the narrative.

The drawback of solving a mystery from a distance, of course, is that it becomes a very detached and academic sort of pursuit. It’s a very clever exercise, I grant, but it’s much more in the vein of a puzzle than anything that acknowledges the true horror of murder. Also, while most of the barristers receive at least some personality (those remaining in London, at least), the fellow who heads off to Venice to assist Julia personally is really quite bland.

Even while I have a few complaints, I still enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered a good deal and am really looking forward to reading the other three in the series.

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