I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately–for whatever reason, it’s a genre that has been exactly what I wanted while recovering from last month’s surgery. I actually asked for recommendations on Twitter and got some great suggestions. So far my favorites from that list have been the Hilary Tamar books by Sarah Caudwell, which my friend Kate suggested. They’re so delightful! I was extremely sad that there are only four of them and had to ration them out a bit so I didn’t just read all of them in two days and then regret it.
Now, I’m sure that not everyone will enjoy these books to the same degree that I did. They’re centered around the legal profession in London, with an ironic and somewhat distant narration style that reads almost like a 19th century novel. The setup is a bit predictable after the first book. The characters are mostly well-of, upper class, white Britons. I suspect that you’ll read the first page or so of Thus Was Adonis Murdered and know instantly if this is a book for you or not.
But if it is a book for you, then what joys await! Hilary’s narration is actually really funny under the dry tone, and the actual plots of the mysteries are quite engaging and twisty. The books are erudite and abstract, but they also have a keen sense of observation and understanding of people and what motivates them that keeps the story from becoming dry. Caudwell also had a deft hand with description, which makes the settings of her stories come alive. All in all, my main memory of the books is of vividness and humor, which is partly because of that same detached tone.
Also, when I looked up Caudwell Wikipedia pointed out that Hilary’s gender is never specified, which I had not previously realized. Either because Hilary tends to be a name more associated with women in the US or because I’m me, I had instinctively read them as female (Jo Walton completely disagrees). It may also be because of the sympathetic air shown towards the various difficulties Selena and Julia undergo. Regardless, I felt there was an undercurrent of feminist sensibility in the stories, which also kept the plots from falling into tired tropes.
As I said earlier, my only real complaint about these books is that there are not more of them. Sadly, Sarah Caudwell died in 2000 (and had not published a novel for 11 years before that). At least it’s possible to read & reread the existing books with (at least for me) great enjoyment.