Sarah Caudwell: The Shortest Way to Hades

The Shortest Way to Hades

The Paul Cox cover art fits the book perfectly (and incidentally inspired my first metaphysical conversation with one of the Minor Offences: ‘Is that lady falling out of the window? Will she die? Will she go to Hebburn?’ – ‘Only if she’s very unlucky.’)

The Shortest Way to Hades
Sarah Caudwell
First published in the UK 1984, Collins Crime Club
This edition Robinson, 2012
ISBN: 9781780339269
243 pages
Source: Norwich Millennium Library

It is logically impossible, you see, for a lie to be perfectly consistent with truth: in order to tell an undetectable lie, it would be necessary to invent an alternative universe.

This is the second of four mysteries by Sarah Caudwell featuring Professor Hilary Tamar of St George’s College, Oxford.

Sarah Caudwell was yet another lawyer-turned-writer (see also Michael Gilbert and Cyril Hare, and that’s just off the top of my head), who sounds pretty cool. According to a colleague of hers:

As a woman, she had to have had a first-class mind to join the Chancery bar, to have built up a successful practice and to have become a senior executive at Lloyds, All these institutions were highly resistant to women at a senior level, and certainly to a woman who smoked a pipe.

Her novels are mildly farcical legal whodunits, in which Professor Tamar is assisted by young barristers Cantrip, Ragwort, Selena, Timothy and comically scatty Julia, who all gather at the Corkscrew for red wine and a chat after work.

Almost as soon as you open Shortest Way, you’re faced with a cast of thousands, and a set-up involving a complex will and the Variation of Trusts Act. I can’t cope without taking notes…

  • Jocasta Remington-Fiske is the snooty head of the family.
  • Camilla Galloway is Jocasta’s beautiful, talented (and about to become extremely rich through inheritance) grand-daughter.
  • Rupert Galloway, Jocasta’s son-in-law and Camilla’s father, is a smooth ne’er-do-well who dabbles unsuccessfully in the stock market.
  • Deirdre Robinson, Jocasta’s niece, is Camilla’s opposite – plain, boring, and not at all wealthy.
  • The diminutive and charming Dorothea Demetriou is Jocasta’s sister, now resident in Greece.
  • Constantine Demetriou, Dorothea’s husband, is a renowned poet and political dissident.
  • Lucian and Lucinda are Dorothea’s twin children by her first husband.
  • Leonidas is her Greek son, who soon captivates Julia the barrister with his classical good looks.

Basically, when the family is introduced, they are all trying to rework the terms of a will to avoid Camilla being hit with a massive tax bill. The entire group, with the definite exception of the argumentative Deirdre, is happy with the resolution sorted out by the lawyers.

The next thing Hilary hears about the family is that Deirdre has fallen from Rupert’s balcony during the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race. The authorities have decided this was an unfortunate accident, but Julia is convinced that there has been foul play and is infuriated that nobody else is interested.

‘[Deirdre was] very plain, and rather dull, and she didn’t seem to like anyone very much. But I still think it matters if someone pushed her off the roof.’

The barristers are all too busy to investigate, and so, mainly to shut Julia up, they appeal to Hilary’s vanity to persuade him (or her) to look into the case.

Him or her? Professor Tamar is an indeterminate person – gender and age are both unclear. It’s quite a difficult trick to pull off (and perhaps professionally foolish – it makes the books, which would otherwise be decent Sunday night TV, unfilmable). He/she certainly seems older than his/her friends, but that may just be academic crustiness, as in….

To a place of such ambiguous repute as Vashti’s my readers will wish no precise directions. Nor, indeed, am I in a position to give them: it is my custom, when being driven by Selena to keep my eyes firmly closed.

Anyway, Hilary soon begins to turn up ambiguities and initiates the chain of events which leads to a final dramatic confrontation on a Greek island.

Her (or his) academic training lends interest to the most mundane matters. For example, we learn some interesting terms from the world of scholarship in relation to the shoddy work of temporary legal typists. ‘Haplography’ is when a copyist misses out a short amount of text between two identical phrases in the original. ‘Dictation interne’ is the error caused by a copyist transcribing what they hear when repeating the phrase to be copied – ‘sun and air’ instead of ‘son and heir’.

Tonally… well, there’s an Amazon review which says it’s like Michael Innes meets Jilly Cooper, and I think there’s truth in that. This is most notable in the chapter describing the Cynthia Paine-style ‘naughty’ party featuring Rupert in black leather bathing trunks. Incidentally, this leads to one of the funniest deadpan lines in the book, from Julia:

‘She seemed to feel there was some sort of bond between us – in addition, that is, to the bond which must exist between any two women who have shared the same balcony disguised respectively as a parlourmaid and a schoolgirl while the premises within were raided by the police.’

It’s comfortable, likeable, and very readable. I’ll definitely pick up another Caudwell in future (unfortunately there are only four Tamar books).

Moira has recently reviewed Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first in the series, over at Petrona Remembered. And update: Margot’s In the Spotlight article on the same book.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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3 Responses to Sarah Caudwell: The Shortest Way to Hades

  1. Great review. Thanks for the mensh, Rich, and of course I like this one too! All four books are splendid, though the first is the best. I’m intending to re-read them all in the hazily-defined near future.


  2. Pingback: Crime fiction pick of the month: July 2013 | Past Offences

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – Thank you so much for the kind mention! I really appreciate it, and this fine review of yours. This really is a terrific series, isn’t it?


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