I was a little worried when I began Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered for my mystery book group because Hobgoblin had not liked the book at all. We don’t always agree on books, but we agree often enough to give me reason to worry. And the critiques he made sounded like ones I might make too. But as it turns out, this is one of those books we don’t agree on, and I ended up liking it a lot. The book has a very strong and distinctive voice, which means that if you don’t take to the voice, you will hate the book. Fortunately for me, it was a voice I found amusing.
The book was published in 1981 (although I kept feeling it was set in an earlier time — it didn’t feel like the 1980s), and is about a group of young barristers in London, one of whom, Julia, travels to Venice on vacation with a group of art lovers, one of whom is murdered. Julia has been taken in for questioning. The barristers back in London worried about Julia traveling to Venice because of her extreme lack of practicality and street smarts. They were right to worry, but nobody expected she would be accused of murder.
The book never actually takes us to Venice, however, except in letters. The main action all takes place back in London and is narrated by a person named Hilary whose gender is never specified (although I sort of forgot that men can be named Hilary and assumed it was a woman until I read Emily’s post on the book). It’s Hilary’s voice that you will most likely either love or hate; Hilary is an Oxford don and is friends with the London barristers, although not really a part of their group. Hilary is obsessed with scholarship and the logical and investigative skills that come with being a scholar, although also curiously willing to forgo actually doing scholarship when something more exciting comes along. You can catch a bit of the novel’s tone and its humor from one of my favorite passages:
On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled into place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself it was almost eleven, and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.
Hilary is self-obsessed and self-important, but is a willing and able guide through the story, and in fact takes on the role of guide self-consciously, telling us early on who solves the murder (Hilary) and speaking to us directly to give clues as to how the story is put together.
What I particularly liked about the novel, in addition to the tone and the humor, is the fact that so much of it is made up of letters. Julia writes Selena, one of the barristers, long letters telling her experiences, and the group sits around while Selena reads them out loud. The letters are interrupted by commentary and discussion from the group, so we get not only the story as told by Julia, but also the reactions of the barristers who already know about the murder and can read the letters for clues. The mystery is solved from this reading, as Hilary smugly reveals to everyone at the end.
I also liked Julia’s character — she is bumbling and disaster-prone (or at least this is how the barristers characterize her; it’s possible to wonder how fair they are being), but she is a brilliant tax lawyer and a beautiful, sexually-forthright woman who hopes for some erotic adventures on her trip. It is clear that she is not looking for romance, but instead wants sex, and she is made impatient by the fact that men might actually want women to pay attention to their minds rather than just their bodies. In a letter to Selena, she writes:
It is your view, as I understand it, that when dealing with young men one should make no admission, in the early stages, of the true nature of one’s objectives but instead should profess a deep admiration for their fine souls and splendid intellects. One is not to be discouraged, if I have understood you correctly, by the fact that they may have neither. I reminded myself, therefore, that if I could get the lovely creature into conversation, I must make no comment on the excellence of his profile and complexion but should apply myself to showing a sympathetic interest in his hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
The bending of gender stereotypes is great fun, and one of the book’s interests is finding out whether Julia finds her wishes fulfilled.
I’ll admit there were parts of the ending I didn’t find convincing, but by that point it didn’t really matter — the fun of the book is in its humor and its structure and the plotting felt almost incidental.