Friday, 12 September 2014

Forgotten Book - The Shortest Way to Hades

It's clear from reaction to my recent comments on this blog about the late Sarah Caudwell that, despite the short and far from prolific nature of her career, she retains many admirers. I'm certainly among them. Sarah died more than fourteen years ago, but she definitely should not be forgotten. So I'm following up last week's post about her debut novel with some thoughts on the follow-up, The Shortest Way to Hades. This was first published in 1985, although Sarah published only one more novel in the last fifteen years of her life. Perhaps a case of writer's block? A great deal of intensity went into writing her complicated and witty novels, and although the effect is very smooth, this was - as usual - the product of much hard work.

This novel is again narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar (male or female? we are never told) in Sarah's witty, wordy and intelligent way, and again features a likeable group of young barristers from Lincoln's Inn. Sarah also makes good use of letters as a means of conveying plot information, and offers a gorgeous continental background, in this case Corfu,as a counterpoint to the London legal world where much of the story takes place. She even introduces a cricket match into the story - shades of Dorothy L. Sayers and Murder Must Advertise.

The story concerns a legal issue that is right up the street of Chancery barristers like Sarah and her charactes -a tax avoidance scheme designed to assist the beneficiaries of a multi-million pound family trust. A cousin called Deirdre demands a large amount of money for her consent (I didn't think this was quite as unreasonable as some of the characters seemed to do, I must say) and makes herself deeply unpopular. Then Deirdre suffers a fatal accident while the family is watching the Boat Race. But was it an accident?

Well, we can guess the answer to that question, but solving the detail of the mystery is quite a challenge. The clues are supplied, but are concealed with great skill and no little cunning. Once more, Hilary's mastery of the more arcane aspects of legal scholarship supplies the vital leads to what is really going on. When I re-read this book recently, I found it just as much of a joy to read as I did back in the 80s. If you are a Golden Age fan, I am pretty confident you will enjoy this book.


Christine said...

I do agree, Martin. She is such an enjoyable writer.

Clothes In Books said...

I'm agreeing with you and Chrissie - I enjoyed all her books so much.

J said...

Martin, you refer to Hilary as female twice. Is that your take on the matter? (I think the concealment over so many pages is brilliant...)

John said...

There were four books by Caudwell not three. The Sirens Sang of Murder came four years after this one and then the last one came in 2000. I really enjoyed the first one and this one -- probably because Julia was not so prominent -- was less lively. Such a unique almost anachronistic writer. I think she is definitely an acquired taste for most readers.

Martin Edwards said...

Chrissie, Moria, many thanks.
J, it was a slip, I'm afraid. Done in a rush while in Sicily, of which more tomorrow. I can't quite make up my mind about Hilary's sex - my views keep changing, odd as this may be.
John, you're right. What I meant was that the fourth book was posthumous, but in fact though I still believe it was, it may possibly have been published in the US just before she died. I agree, Julia's a great character.