Thus Was Adonis Murdered (Hilary Tamar #1) by Sarah Caudwell

[rating=5] Excellent good fun! I tried to read this once before and stopped after a pitiable four of five pages because the prose was too dense and academic for my state of mind at the time. If I had only had someone to urge me on to the completion of Chapter Two, which includes a hilarious letter from the accused, I would have seen the lighter side of Caudwell’s tale of murder and art history, and persevered.

Alas, I had no such guide, and wasted several years having this book sit on my shelf unread and unappreciated, when I should have been singing its praises. Hallelujah, gentle reader! You can now benefit from the wisdom I then lacked.

This lovely little mystery is British in the extreme, despite its events occurring mostly in the canals, alleys and palazzos of Venice, Italy.

Some unconventional storytelling takes place, in that we have the crime related to us in an epistolary fashion, via letters posted while on holiday. This correspondence recounts in amusing detail the suspects, the setting, and important clues, all the while providing some nice tidbits of Italian cultural history, which made me very much want to visit that country with its Campari sodas and plentiful coffee shops all over again.

Yet more unorthodox is the laissez-faire attitude towards gender and sexuality in the book. Not only are same-sex relationships at the core of the mystery, involving men in love with men, women who are disposed to sleep with men who are comfortable with their bisexuality, and flirtatious and misunderstandings between ladies embracing while in a state of distress/undress, but more unusually, the sex of Professor Hilary Tamar, our erstwhile detective, is never explicitly revealed.

Male or female, Hilary solves the crime using methods that even Sherlock might find inscrutable – by the application of scholarly disciplines, including the science of textual criticism, a smattering of cunning translations, a bit of gumshoe work at art galleries and the like, and the setting out of bait for certain suspects to separate the red herrings from the really stinky fish.

I did not figure out the ending, although there were clues enough to tip me off, but I enjoyed the tale immensely and polished off all 314 pages in record time.

If you enjoy the casual bickering of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, the snobby intellectualism of the elite, law jokes, art jokes, Shakespeare jokes, sex jokes, or investigators who solve crimes with no direct access to the corpse, scene of the crime, or even being in the same country in which the crime was committed (putting one up on Rex Stout’s formidable Nero Wolfe, to be sure!) then I can say with confidence that you will enjoy Sarah Caudwell’s ‘Thus Was Adonis Murdered’. The Edward Gorey covers on the original paperbacks are also a source of unending delight for any mystery lover with an aesthetic sense.

If you are squeamish about LGBTQ relationships, don’t appreciate Latin interjections, or object to classical references such as Endymion or Praxiteles being used as descriptive shortcuts, this book may not be quite your cup of tea. Personally, I thought it was masterful.

For more mysterious legal goings on…

1) Book Two: Sarah Caudwell’s ‘The Shortest Way to Hades’

2) Book Three: Sarah Caudwell’s ‘The Sirens Sang of Murder’

3) Book Four: Sarah Caudwell’s ‘The Sibyl in Her Grave’

5 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, mystery, comedy, travel. 314 pages, Publisher: Dell. (1981)
Read from April 01 to 07, 2013

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