Charming, quirky, delightful: Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar mysteries

Sarah Caudwell wrote four mysteries between 1981 and 2002, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl in Her Grave. They all feature the first person narrator Hilary Tamar and the four barristers Cantrip, Ragwort, Selina and Julia, who in the best tradition of English mysteries just seem to happen across murders while getting on with their lives. These books are charming and delightful, but I don’t recommend reading (or even re-reading) all four of them back to back, because that can make them sometimes tip over the line from adorable to annoying. The thing that makes or breaks these books, and determines whether or not you’re going to love them or loathe them is Hilary Tamar’s voice. Look at this, from the first book:

On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Records Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or 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.

It’s all like that—Hilary Tamar is smug and pompous and greedy and arrogant and lazy. As I read these I keep wanting to read the funny bits aloud. There’s a bit in the second one about Jane Austen that I’m only not quoting because I hope you will have the joy of encountering it in its proper place. It’s funny as a standalone paragraph, but it’s awesome within context.

There’s nothing fantastical about them, except that as so often for series detectives time and technology marches on without them growing any older. These are straight mysteries. And they are pretty good mysteries considered as mysteries. In two of them (the second and fourth) I didn’t work out what was happening ahead of the text. But the mystery is just the thing that’s there for the characters to tie themselves into knots over, and the characters are wonderful.

I didn’t read these books for years, despite many recommendations, because all the people recommending them said, “It’s a first person narrator and the gender isn’t revealed.” Nobody told me they were side-splittingly funny, nobody told me the mysteries were convoluted and all the characters were terrific. Everyone told me that Hilary Tamar’s gender wasn’t revealed as if a gimmick like that would be sufficiently exciting. It is a gimmick, in a mystery series set in our world, not the interesting statement about gender it is in Melissa Scott’s The Kindly Ones (post). There are worlds where Hilary’s gender presentation might be interesting, but this isn’t one of them.

While different people read Hilary Tamar different ways, to me Hilary is smug and self-confident the way only British upper class men get to be. Women have their pomposity punctured from time to time, just because people can always put you down for being a woman. As a woman Hilary would have had to break through glass ceilings that haven’t been there. And Caudwell knows this, you can see it in her portrayal of the four (five…) young barristers and the suspects. Hilary has the confidence you can only have if you have never had to question your arrogance. Hilary is funny because Caudwell knows how to play with the narration. Hilary’s flaws, so invisible to Hilary, are totally visible to Caudwell and through Caudwell to the reader. Caudwell isn’t trying to build a world where women can be like this, she’s much too aware of this world that she’s writing in. The only real evidence for Hilary being female is looking appreciatively at beautiful men—and I mean really, it would be odder for Hilary to be straight.

There are four books, and they were written in order over time, and technology advances, as it really did. But it doesn’t matter what order you read them in, and if you’re only going to read one I recommend the second one The Shortest Way to Hades, which I think is both the funniest and the best mystery. The fourth book, which I read first, The Sibyl in Her Grave, is darker than the others. As well as London, the four books are set respectively in Venice, Greece, Jersey and France, and a typical English village.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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