Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Shortest Way to Hades: Sarah Caudwell


The Hilary Tamar series centers around a group of young barristers who often seek Hilary's help when they run into trouble. Hilary is a Law professor and former tutor of one of the group, Timothy Shepherd.

This story is about an heiress, who is trying to avoid excessive estate taxes by an amendment to her grandfather's will. Her family all cooperate, except for one cousin who demands a large sum to agree to the changes. And shortly after that, the cousin is dead. But why, Hilary wonders, is she the one who died, and not the cousin who will inherit all the money?

I loved this quote from the book:
There are days on which Julia does not open letters. She is overcome, as I understand it, by a sort of superstitious dread, in which she is persuaded that letters bode her no good: they will be from the Gas Board, and demand money; or from the Inland Revenue, and demand accounts; or from some much valued friend, and demand an answer. If a letter arrives on such a day as this, she does not open it but puts it carefully away, to be dealt with when she feels stronger. After that, I had always supposed, it is never seen again.
Julia is the barrister who had advised the cousin who is now dead. And if she had opened the letter from this woman a few days before her death, she might not have died.

One notable thing about this series is that Hilary Tamar's gender is never identified. I am one of those readers who was shocked to hear this. I have only read the first book prior to this one, but I had definitely pegged Hilary as female. Another reviewer had decided on the opposite sex.

The characters are quirky, sometimes flaky. The prose is full of humor and wit. Many people read these books for the entertainment factor solely, the relationships of Hilary Tamar and her friends and the method of telling the story. In this case a portion of the story was told through letters. I found the mystery in this book satisfying, and I did not find the legal explanations boring. I could have done without the lengthy coverage of a cricket game.


I did not fall immediately in love with this author and her series when I read the first book, as many do. But I was persuaded to return and try another book after seeing many enthusiastic reviews. The lovely covers adorned with illustrations by Edward Gorey also helped. And I was happy to find that I did enjoy this one. Still a bit too humorous for me, but well worth the read.

Other resources:





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Publisher:  Dell, 1995. Orig. pub. 1985.
Length:     314 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hilary Tamar, #2
Setting:     London; Greece
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.




12 comments:

  1. I remember this series being mentioned on Dorothy-L many years ago. I never tried it, but I'm now interested again. Funny about the 'Hilary' angle - male, female - I assumed Hilary was a female name too, but I guess it could also be a male name.

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    1. This series is worth a try, Kay. I lot of people love it. I don't know if it is better to know about Hilary going into the book ore not.

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  2. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, Tracy. The series might not be to everyone's taste, but the characters are interesting, and I think Caudwell did create some solid mysteries. I know what you mean about there being a little too much wit in the story for your taste. But I think Caudwell did do the wit effectively. It may not be a novel to read when one's in the mood for a deep, thoughtful sort of book. But it is, as you say, worth the read, and I think it's an intelligent novel.

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    1. Margot: Even now, knowing that I enjoy humor more in books than I used to, I always resist a series that I know is humorous. Except for Donald Westlake, I like any style he writes.

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  3. TracyK: I have known of Caudwell's books for a long time but never read any. I think it is time I took a look for the series.

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    1. I agree, Bill, I think you would appreciate them, and I would love to hear your opinion on the legal issues.

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  4. I enjoyed most of these. I think the third one is less memorable than the first two. I read three of them then stopped. I still have her last book The Sibyl in her Grave (published posthumously) to read and then I'm done with this short-lived series. Julia is the best part of the books. The Hilary gimmick is sort of silly. Caudwell should have just made Hilary a man and be done with it. To me Hilary comes off as a pretentious gay guy. Isn't it odd how we all interpret the character differently? But I guess part of the fun is reading and envisioning Hilary as both male and female all at once. All the wannabe gender iconoclasts involved in the "non-binary" movement would appreciate these books. It must have been difficult to avoid using specific pronouns when writing about Hilary in these books. When I read SIBYL... I'll pay very close attention to that aspect of her writing.

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    1. Had I just read the books back when they were first published, without access to lots of reviews, I probably would not have noticed that Hilary's gender was never specified. As you say, John, I am sure it was hard to pull that off. And you are right, when reading this one I worked hard to picture Hilary as male but usually did not succeed. I do plan to read the other two.

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  5. I read all these books as they were published (no internet, no reviews, no blogs) and thought I was being stupid because I wasn't sure about Hilary! No-one to discuss it with back in those days. I love this series, but none of them, in my view, matches up with the first one, which is one of my all-time top 10 detective stories. I do love the characters and their jokes and relationships: it was so sad that she died young and didn't go on to write a long series about them.

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    1. And that is why I love the internet and blogging, to be able to share reading thoughts and learn about books. I do have all the books, Moira, and will be reading the next two eventually. And I may go back and read the first one again, since I did not enjoy it properly the first time.

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  6. I have these on the pile, compulsively purchased in a moment of weakness (there been more than a few of them over the years). I wonder if I will ever read them.

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    1. You might enjoy them, Col. You would certainly understand the humor more than I did.

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