Thus Was Adonis Murdered

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Thus Was Adonis Murdered

  1. Well, you’ve certainly caught my interest with this review. I’ll look for this one.


  2. So glad to hear you liked it! I love these books – find them very amusing, and as you say, the way gender stereotypes are played with is half the fun, especially with Hilary. I have all four in the series, and only wish there had been more.


  3. Huw

    Ha! I just finished reading a fortnight ago and thought it was excellent. As you say, the ending was contrived – as most crime fiction is – but the characters and style were wonderful.


  4. This sounds so good! I love books with letters, and Hilary’s voice sounds marvelous.

    I am scratching my head about the author, though. I read TONS of mysteries in the mid-90s, and Caudwell is a familiar name. So many of the mysteries I read then are a blur, but I wonder if I read one of her books then, or perhaps meant to read one. Oh well, this storyline certainly doesn’t sound familiar!


  5. I really like Sarah Caudwell and am sorry to hear Hobgoblin didn’t. The voice is very recognisable here in the UK as a particular kind of fusty academic, although I wouldn’t have called it self-important. But maybe that’s because I have those sorts of voices around me all the time in college and see it as a ..well, almost a dialect, I suppose! But no book ever suits everyone, does it? It would be a dull old world if it were all that cut and dried. 🙂


  6. Fun! I love it when books play with gender stereotypes and tell a good story at the same time.


  7. I’ve had this one on hand for ages and you make it sound like something I would really like. I will have to look for my copy. I like the sound of Julia–that quote you shared is great. Did your group discuss whether they thought Hilary was a man or woman? And what was the consensus if they did?


  8. Jenclair — I think you would enjoy it!

    Melwyk — I already checked to see if my local bookstores/library has any more of hers! They seem like perfect books for when I want something light but well-written and smart.

    Huw — how great that you just finished reading the book! I suppose you’re right about the endings to mysteries and crime novels. I rarely care much about the ending anyway, with a few exceptions. Yes, character and style is what matters here.

    Teresa — I love epistolary novels and books that feature letters (I’ve found myself buying lots of “collected letters”-type books lately, in fact) as well, and the way this one is structured is particularly satisfying. I guess you’ll have to read her to see if the books ring a bell from your mystery reading in the 90s!

    Litlove — interesting that you had a different response to the voice than I did and that it’s such a familiar one to you. It’s not really familiar at all to me, and that was part of the fun. I guess I couldn’t help but think of all the stuff about the value of scholarship and everything Hilary could accomplish because of his/her well-trained mind as self-important. But then again, if I heard it all the time it might be different 🙂

    Stefanie — this one definitely does both and does them well. Very satisfying!

    Danielle — I think you would like this one, definitely. We did discuss Hilary’s gender in our group, but the only consensus was that we can’t know one way or the other. No one really ventured an opinion about which gender seemed more probable — except perhaps me, since I thought Hilary was a woman the entire time I read it.


  9. bookgazing

    That quote made me chuckle and it sounds quite Oscar Wilde like, funny, but at the same time probably more than a little bit serious.


  10. Bookgazing — interesting Wilde comparison. I’m not sure I’d call this book serious — it deals with murder, but in a very lighthearted way. I chuckled quite often when I read it!


  11. Jenny

    So glad you liked this! I love Caudwell and am sorry there aren’t more.


  12. Pingback: Book Bloggers: An Appreciation » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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