Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first of her Hilary Tamar mysteries. I obviously haven’t read the rest of them yet, but this one at least is one of those arch British novels that you want to quote all the time—not Wodehouse pastiche, but the kind of prose that will appeal to people who like Wodehouse, I should think—which also happens to be an epistolary murder mystery.
The premise of the book (explained in the first few pages, so I’m not spoiling anything) is that there’s a group of friends, who are lawyers in London; one of their number has recently taken a vacation to Venice, and been arrested for murder, and they’re working to find the truth of the matter and prove her innocence.
The epistolary structure is clever, in allowing the build-up to the murder to be told after we already know the murder occurs: The news of her arrest comes across quickly on the wires, but the letters trickle in, building up to the events leading to the arrest. This also works well in allowing the characters to bounce off of each other, reading her letter and riffing on it, or airing their suspicions of who might be guilty.
The mystery itself is entirely credible, and seems to be largely fair—the reader has all the knowledge the lawyers do, and if there’s perhaps a deduction or two that seems a stretch, it can be forgiven as genre convention. (There was one point that I suspected well before it was revealed, but I didn’t know where it was going; that kind of partial guessing of the truth is probably where a mystery ideally wants its reader.)
The one weird thing to me is that if you had asked when the book was set, I would have said at first somewhere in the 1920s, not too long after the Great War. The characters would be libertines by the standards of the time (they’re very casual about their sex in any gender combination), but maybe not too far off for sophisticated cosmopolitan London. But then one of the characters is described as having been in WW2 when he was younger, such that it seems more likely that it’s actually taking place in the 1960s or something. (It occurs to me that it’s entirely possible exact dates are given in the book, and I just didn’t notice.)
But they don’t feel modern. Part of that, of course, is me thinking of Wodehouse; but another part is the letters. The telephone does come into play later in the book, but the idea of mailing around letters seems like something out a past more distant than merely the ‘60s. But probably this is just a case of the internet era making pre-internet communication seem more impossibly ancient than it was.
Anyway, though, that’s not the main point. The main point is, this is a ton of fun and a pure delight if you like your mysteries light-hearted and ironic.