Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Sibyl in Her Grave by Sarah Caudwell

published 2000







[Desmond Ragwort is writing to his friends, describing his adventures in the south of France]

Whether Madame Zingara had any just claim to be described as beautiful it was impossible to tell: one had an impression merely of a tall, slim woman with a mass of dark hair and wearing more than enough makeup to conceal any defects of complexion. She was swathed in material, draped round her. One might have considered it a rather decorous garment; but the undulating movement of her hips and shoulder somehow made it look as if it were continuously in the process of slithering to the ground, so that the actual effect was rather the reverse…

Madame Zingara concluded her performance with “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera. She moved round the restaurant as she sang it, hips and shoulders still undulating, pausing at each table to hold out a large copper bowl. Having not quite expected this, I wondered anxiously what sort of sum it would be proper to contribute…


observations: This is the third of Sarah Caudwell’s murder stories to feature on the blog – the others are here and here – and is just as enjoyable as the others. This time, the origins of the crime are in a village in West Sussex (map provided), with frequent excursions to the South of France: Julia’s aunt is involved in the usual unlikely farrago of financial dealings, poisonings, upset love affairs and missing valuable artefacts. The books are very different, but still there are themes you can spot:

-- Somehow, even in 2000, Caudwell manages a book where everyone communicates by letter, although computers and word-processing are mentioned.

--There’s a legal/financial problem – this time insider dealing, which according to this book (and one would never doubt Sarah Caudwell) has only been a criminal offence since 1980.

-- The story lies in a definite literary and detective tradition: there is plenty of mention of crosswords and crime fiction, and an odd reference to Wuthering Heights: ‘I was woken up by Daphne, tapping at my window and calling out to let me in. Since my window is about twenty feet above ground level, I found this disconcerting.’

-- Clever quiet jokes: Cantrip plans to do some detecting while on a shoot: Professor Tamar says to him ‘Are you sure the best time to question a murder suspect is when he has a gun in his hand?’

-- An observant reader can congratulate herself on working out that two apparently separate characters have never been seen in the same room together – then Caudwell makes fun of the trope: ‘It had for some time been as clear to me as it has doubtless been to my readers that [X] and [Y] were the same person.’

-- A clever attempt to make the reader trip herself up, with a minor character whom we picture as a woman of older years, but who is slowly revealed to be young and highly attractive.

There’s a helpful aphorism: 'Transvestism, whether deliberate or accidental, invariably has a rejuvenating effect on women and an aging effect on men.' Which may or may not be relevant to the extract above.

The picture of a dancer is from the Library of Congress. This entry may also be of interest.

10 comments:

  1. I never actually got the fourth book in her series, I stopped at no.3. You may beg to differ, but from the reviews I read on Amazon and around this one wasn't as well received as the others. The weakest of the quartet?

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    1. I liked this one very much, but I can see it might not be to everyone's taste, the crime element is not terribly serious. I liked it because had an extreme version of Sarah-Caudwell-ness!

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  2. Moira - Oh, I do like this series! I think one of the best parts in it is the wit. It's playful, as your post points out, but subtle and to me, that makes it all the better. And I do like the way Caudwell succeeds at giving traditional detective stories a modern context. That's not easy to pull off. And yes, the unwary reader is tripped up; Caudwell's quite good at 'sneaking up on one' if I can put it that way.

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    1. Yes, it's a rare thing to pull off, to be witty, and clever, and surprising, with clues we don't see till later... Sarah Caudwell was so good at it.

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  3. I was oblivious as to the sex of the dancer until I read through your post. I am not much of an armchair detective with that level of observational skill.

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    1. Well, Bill, I'd read the book before and it still managed to surprise me so I'm even worse! It was cleverly done...

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  4. That picture is Nijinsky (of the rose-petal tights) again. It's the costume he wore as the Golden Slave in "Scheherazade".

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  5. I am still not sure I am going to like this level of humor and whimsy in a mystery (and i think that was my problem with the first book). But I have all the books and I intend to read them eventually. Maybe I will have a change of heart.

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    1. I cannot deny the books are somewhat whimsical! But maybe one day you will be in the mood for that...

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