REVIEWS: Sarah Caudwell and the Murder Mystery

Eleven days ago, a friend of mine posted this quotation:

“You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it had a most remarkable effect—even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment.”

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

“She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation.”

– Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades

Clearly an author after my own heart.

I’ve already tracked down and read two of Caudwell’s four novels, and I’ve ordered the other two. They are classic British whodunits: gently witty, mannered little mysteries. The amateur sleuth is Professor Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don of enormous erudition and indeterminate gender, and the sleuth’s sidekicks are a group of young barristers. (A brief dictionary of British legal terms may be useful to those unfamiliar with the British terminology of solicitors, barristers, chambers, and clerks.

The Shortest Way To Hades (1985) is a murder mystery written in a voice reminiscent of Miss Manners. Instead of realism, it offers a delightful escape and some wicked intellectual pleasures, including dramatic irony. Although the characters lack depth, they are far from stock characters; most of them are, in their own polite way, quite subversive of stereotypes.

The Sibyl In Her Grave (2000) was published posthumously, and it’s a far more accomplished, complex, and subtle book. Beneath the prim voice, there lies a warm acceptance of the varieties of human sexual behavior and a deep understanding of both friendship and love, including a particular variety of exploitive and destructive love. The dramatis personae include an elderly vicar, several financiers, a fortune-teller and her wretched drudge of a niece, a lovesick carpenter, and a physiotherapist specializing in pains of the lower back. There is also Aunt Regina, a retired interior decorator with a warm heart who occasionally hints at having had an adventurous life.

Especially given the artistry of her final novel, Ms. Caudwell‘s early death from cancer was a real loss. A classically educated barrister specializing in finance, she might seem like a stock character from the Golden Age of detective fiction, except that during those halcyon years her father was a prominent Communist journalist/soldier fighting in the Spanish Civil War and her mother was a nightclub singer in decadent Weimar Berlin. Just like Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood‘s Berlin Stories, for the very good reason that Jean Ross was the model for Sally Bowles—and thus for Liza Minnelli’s character in Cabaret.

Jean Ross must have been a remarkable woman; she was also the inspiration for the classic song, “These Foolish Things.”) But Jean Ross, the prototype for his fictional Sally Bowles, . . . turns out to be somewhat less vulnerable than portrayed by Julie Harris in I Am a Camera and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Says Isherwood: “Sally wasn’t a victim, wasn’t proletarian, was a mere self-indulgent upper-middle-class foreign tourist who could escape from Berlin whenever she chose.” Perhaps not the easiest mother for an intellectual daughter, but also possibly a pleasure to spend time with — something like Aunt Regina, in fact.

Caudwell’s father, Claud Cockburn, sired another daughter (by his first wife) and three sons (all radical journalists like Daddy). He may not have been present much during Sarah’s upbringing, since his eldest son by his third wife is only two years younger than she is. But surely some of his talent was passed on to her; in addition to decades of radical left reporting, he wrote Beat the Devil, source of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart movie, and several other novels.

(Note for Mitford-spotters: Esmond and Decca took shelter in his apartment when they eloped together.) [Note for everybody: I hope to hell there’s a dropped line in that essay, because I do not want to think about “stuffy Lord Redesdale giving birth to all those sparky girls.”]

Her half-siblings (and their descendants) apparently share the family wit and activism: Her half-sister Claudia Flanders, OBE, was an advocate for the disabled. Her half-brother Alexander Cockburn has written columns for the Nation and the Wall Street Journal. Andrew recently published a slender but scandal-packed biography of Donald Rumsfeld. And youngest half-brother Patrick has written a number of books, including what looks like a fascinating exploration of polio, which includes a class analysis of the disease.

Life in the shadow of such powerful parents and talented siblings can be difficult. I have no idea whether Sarah was the quiet child or the one all the rest admired (or both). What I do know is that she wrote at least one good light mystery novel and one superb mystery novel. Her complete bibliography also lists several short stories and two acrostic puzzles.

It’s not enough.

One Response to

  • hereatwitsend says:

    I’ve just finished all four novels. I adore S.C.

    I went looking for reviews and found yours. I’ve sent a link to your post to literate friends – it will help get them hooked.

    Thank you for a most informative post.


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The greatest thing
in the world
is the Alphabet
as all knowledge
is contained therein
except the wisdom
of putting it together.
—from an old German bookplate