Friday, 6 May 2016

Forgotten Book - The Sirens Sang of Murder

One of the incidental pleasures of my visit to the USA was that, since I was moderating a panel about Sarah Caudwell, I needed to refresh my mind about her work. This was a real delight, and made very easy by the fact that she wasn't at all prolific. Four novels and various bits and pieces (one of them, the enjoyable Oxford story "Malice Among Friends" was reprinted by Crippen & Landru for the Malice Domestic convention attendees) are all that she produced..

Her third novel, The Sirens Sang of Murder, is in the same vein as its predecessors: witty, elegant, and cleverly structured. It's also surprisingly topical, given that the storyline deals with tax avoidance schemes and offshore tax havens. Long before the Panama Papers caused such a furore, Sarah was having fun with tax dodgers. And, as a tax barrister, she no doubt came across quite a few of them in real life.

Again the narrator is Professor Hilary Tamar, and again Hilary's barrister friends, notably Julia Larwood and Michael Cantrip, are at the heart of the story. And, once more, Caudwell uses the epistolary style to relate much of the information about the plot. The key setting is Sark, a fascinating Channel Island where no conventional cars are allowed (though when I went there, tractors were remarkably common as an alternative form of transport). The narrow pathway connecting the main island with Little Sark is crucial to the plot.

Someone asked us at the panel whether it was likely that Sarah visited Sark to research it. I feel sure she did the descriptions seem authentic to me. But although the setting is fascinating, it's the writing and the storyline that really command attention. The characters are delightful, even if they are not presented in depth. At Malice, I asked the audience whether they thought of Hilary as a man or a woman. Opinion was divided, though it seems to me that Hilary is slightly more like a man than a woman. Sarah, often asked the question, claimed not to know. This is a highly entertaining novel by a writer who should not be forgotten.



seana graham said...

I read and loved these books when they came out and it really is high time to read them again. I remember not even noticing that Caudwell did not clue us in on Hilary's gender, and I believe I just assumed Hilary was a man.

Congratulations on the awards you swept up while in the U.S. by the way for The Golden Age of Murder, by the way. My friend Leslie Karst did email me to tell me that you had won the Agatha and that she had managed to meet you in the elevator. It is a very small world these days.

Clothes In Books said...

So glad she is not forgotten! I loved her books and it makes me sad that there will be no more. I can still remember the delight I felt on first reading Thus Was Adonis Murdered - still my favourite of hers.

Christine said...

I agree. I've read them all and enjoyed them. What a pity she didn't write more.

Helena said...

I was delighted to see that Sarah Caudwell and her books were discussed. I think her books are wonderful, and love re-reading them. Because I know the name "Hilary" as a female name I assumed at first that Hilary was a woman, but I did wonder after a while and especially once I remembered that the name was also used for men in the past. I find it impossible to tell, and I like the fact that it doesn't really matter!

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for these comments. It's clear that Sarah is far from forgotten! Seana, it was good to meet Leslie, though she may have found me in a dazed condition after the awards!