Title: The Shortest Way to Hades
Author: Sarah Caudwell
Series: the Hilary Tamar mysteries
Summary: A group of young London barristers, along with their former tutor Tamar, set out to investigate the suspicious death (deaths?) of one of their clients. Half of the story happens in London, while the other half is in Corfu, Greece.
Once again, a fabulous and unique narrator. Hilary Tamar is carefully written with intellectual language, elegant sentences, and a complete ambiguity about gender. All of the other characters are clearly men or women, but Hilary is deliberately never defined. Oh, there are clues, of course, but just when you think you have Hilary nailed down, something else slips in– and your ideas fold away. People who review this book, like I am, often make a big deal about this, as it is so unusual, but I think the point that Caudwell is trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the story, so why include it? And, she has a point.
Ok, remember what I said a few posts ago about not like Literature ? Well, I do like feeling smart about literature, I just don’t care, particularly, for reading it in my spare time. The beautiful thing about Hilary, Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia is that they feel like an exclusive, academic club to which you, the reader, are also invited– meanwhile, you’re reading a mystery book. I admit, I had to go back to my old copy of “The Odyssey” for a few of the more obscure references, but that’s what makes this worth the read– that plot elements of classical Greek literature play an essential part in the plot of the story. Speaking of plotting– Caudwell’s plot construction is so tight, you don’t even realize what she’s done until the very end when every piece falls neatly into place. If you don’t know your “Odyssey,” though, don’t worry. The relevant passages are made clear enough without background reading. Also, Caudwell thankfully DOES include a family tree at the front of the novel to help the poor reader keep track of the various members of the Jocasta clan.
Now, onto the dialogue, which is my favorite thing about this book & this entire series. Each character speaks with a lovely, high-lettered way. Other reviews have called their tone “ironic,” but I feel it is more Wodehousian– calling it irony takes away from the beautiful playfulness of the novel. The interplay of each character’s speaking style, along with the “come on, gang!” element makes it feel like a more serious version of one of his best novels. I actually read most of the dialogue aloud, just because it was fun to say. Cantrip’s speeches, in particular, stand out. It’s a pity that Caudwell only wrote the 4 books in this series, a bit of short story, and one play. We won’t get any more, either, because she died 9 years ago. (I know, she was busy being a tax barrister and all, but it’s a shame). For example, Hilary doesn’t want to grade final exam essays (I know the feeling). She explains this as follows: “The suggestion had been made by some of my colleagues that I should participate in the marking of the summer examinations which in Oxford we refer to as Schools. Much as I was honored by the proposal, I had felt obliged to decline: who am I to sit in judgement on the young? Moreover, the marking of examination scripts is among the most tedious of occupations. I had accordingly explained that the demands of Scholarship– that is to say, of my researches into the concept of causa in the early Common Law– precluded any other commitment of my time and energies.” Now, don’t you wish you would write that way when turning down an assignment at work?
Overall: Anglophiles– you’ll love this series. Nicely, too, you don’t have to read them in order.
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