Feb 4 2011 5:17pm

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

Sarah Caudwell mystery series covers

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.

1. PeeterSR
You got me very intrigued there...
Among Others just arrived today, by the way. I'm very much looking forward to getting around to reading it.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Weeeelll, but these books clearly don't take place in a world that is exactly like ours gender-wise, what with Julia wondering if she's admired a man's brains enough sufficiently to ask him to bed and people calling same-sex relationships "unorthodox" with absolutely no hint of moral disapproval to the comments (and if I remember the fourth book right, isn't there a clergy member in a same-sex relationship which I think is actually completely unremarked upon?).

My, that was a long sentence.

In any event, Hilary is in many ways the least interesting things about the books and I entirely agree that the decision to not reveal gender or sexuality or a great deal else is a not the main attraction of the books.

My favorite quote, besides the one about Jane Austen, is:
Julia's unhappy relationship with the Inland Revenue was due to her omission, during four years of modestly successful practice at the Bar, to pay any income tax. The truth is, I think, that she did not, in her heart of hearts, really believe in income tax. It was a subject which she had studied for examinations and on which she had thereafter advised a number of clients: she naturally did not suppose, in these circumstances, that it had anything to do with real life.

(Caudwell practiced law in the UK and what I know about the substance of the law in these books seemed accurate for the time.)
Ursula L
4. Ursula
It's interesting to think of this in term of men being the unmarked gender, and women being marked - the idea that "man" equals "human, men and women both" in a way that "woman" couldn't. There is no need to put in "male" experience to make the character male, the lack of "female" experiece and markers is enough to default to male.
Liza .
5. aedifica
katenepveu @ 2, I'd forgotten that quote, but I think it may be my favorite too. :-) I've only read the first three books yet, though.
6. ofostlic
I completely failed to notice the narrator's gender ambiguity for the first two books, so I agree it isn't important to appreciating the text.

The third book seems the weakest to me. I think it's partly because the first two books have Cantrip written to support Hilary's put-downs about his Cambridge education, and the change to a viewpoint character is a bit jarring.
7. griblet
The world is that of 1980s' upper-class London barristers educated at Oxford (and Cambridge: Cantrip, poor Cantrip) -- just like John Mortimer's Rumpole. It is full of quirky characters whose eccentricities are permitted as the price for their expertise, and there are indeed many academics as pompous as Hilary, who can be written with only slight exaggeration! WONDERFUL stuff; I've ben laughing over them since 1990.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Ursula: I think it does have male markers though. I think the way Hilary behaves and is treated for that behaviour definitely reads male.
Gillian A
9. GillianA
Huh! You learn something new every day. I have read these books without ever realising that there was any gender ambiguity about Hilary. Having reviewed the books in the light of your revelation, I cannot for a moment consider Hilary to be anything other than male. Everything you say above is only too true with regard to his outlook on life and place in society.

I found these books incredibly funny, and in particular, since I am a tax consultant, all the stuff in the books which hinges on tax (as such a lot of it does) is bang on and absolutely hysterical to anyone with any knowledge of the UK tax industry. The bit in The Sirens Sang of Murder, where they've gone to Sark in the Channel Islands for a day to get through board meetings for 500 odd separate companies, to prove they are not UK tax resident nearly had me crying with laughter.
10. Foxessa
They tipped so far over into annoying from the gitgo for me that I only read one and never finished the second one.

Love, C.
David Dyer-Bennet
11. dd-b
I've read all four of these, and enjoyed them quite a bit. I might have read them a bit too close together; I think Jo's advice there may be good for at least some readers.

The gender ambiguity struck me as mostly annoying; it ought to make the books more about that, and there doesn't seem to be other stuff to support it, so it ends up being a distraction.

I don't recall noticing the brief time-span that that paragraph covered when I read it in the book (starting after 10, and taking a break, totally exhausted, at 11). It leaped out at me here, though, making it even funnier.
12. Chaz Brenchley
Sarah was herself a senior tax lawyer at a major bank, so no surprise that she got that stuff right. She was also bitingly funny about it in person, so again...

Reading the books, I confess I kept forgetting there was an ambiguity about Hilary's gender - but I (alone in this company?) always read her as female. That may be personal rather than textual, as Sarah was a friend and herself somewhat ambiguous about these things. She smoked a pipe, and smuggled herself into the Oxford Union in men's attire when women were still forbidden, and like that...
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Chaz: She may well have smoked a pipe, but she was a better writer than you're implying. I can tell from her treatment of the other characters that she wasn't blithely unaware of the existence of sexism the way that Hilary is.
14. Julia S.
I always thought that Hilary Tamar was Sarah Caudwell's version of her worst possible self. There are so many successful Oxonian women of that generation who claim never to have noticed or experienced sexism of any kind, after all, that a she-Hilary makes perfect sense to me.
15. Tehanu
Haven't read any of these in many years but I do remember enjoying them, so maybe I'll see if I can dig them out of the piles in my garage (or wherever) and give 'em another go. FWIW, I always thought Hilary was a man but it doesn't matter.
16. elsiekate
it took me until the second time i read them that i noticed that there was a gender ambiguity, but i read the character as female, due to not recalling (though i had known it at times) that hilary was a name that could be a man's name.

"the shortest way to hades" --i think i hated the resolution of that one--now i need to reread it to see if that's the case. i do know that i loved "thus was adonis murdered" because i simply loved julia. i think that one is my favorite.
Rf P
17. readforpleasure
I read Hilary as unequivocally male, and hadn't previously encountered anyone who saw ambiguity there. Fascinating. I wish it were possible to identify precisely which cues different readers respond to in making that gender assignment.
Pamela Adams
18. PamAdams
I enjoyed Hades, but agree that the books must be taken in small doses. I had to go grab a Robert B. Parker off the shelf to get back into balance. (Spencer and Hawk beating up bad guys will cure anything!)

I too read Hilary as male, and am not sure that I would have noticed the ambiguity if it wasn't pointed out.
19. Sally Odgers
I thought Hilary was a woman for the first few chapters of "The Sirens Sang" which is the only one I've read so far, then I switched to thinking "male". The original notion was simply because to me Hilary is a girl's name (and so is Tamar...). Then I remembered Hilary WAS a male name and suddenly I felt ah... that's it. This is a male narrator. (Beverly, Shirley..)

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