Today’s entry is slightly different: I wrote this for the Petrona Remembered website (mentioned on the blog before). Petrona was Maxine Clarke, a marvellous writer and blogger who died last year. The site, dedicated to her memory, each week features one person’s favourite crime book. I did not know Maxine well or for long before her sad death, but long enough to find out how welcoming and friendly she was. I kept noticing the word ‘generous’ in the tributes to her, and that was what struck me about her, as she took the time out to go and read and comment on my blog, making a point of welcoming a new face on the block. So I was glad to do something in her memory.
As a devoted crime fiction fan I have read an awful lot of books (my collection of detective stories is bigger than the crime section in most bookshops) and I love all the classic crime writers: Christie, Sayers, Allingham - and a lot of modern ones too. But if, as happens, people ask me what’s my favourite, it’s this one, and that’s partly because of its position as a bridge between old-fashioned and newer books. Adonis was first published in 1981, and is very much of its time (the bread strike!) but it is a perfect mesh of old-fashioned clueing and plotting, and more modern attitudes and characters. At that time it sometimes seemed you could read Golden Age classics, and you could read modern psychological thrillers, but not much else. This was the book that gave me faith that traditional murder stories would live on and adapt to modern times.
The story is almost unnecessarily well worked out – the structure is positively byzantine: young barrister Julia has gone for a short holiday in Venice. She writes letters every day (! Yes, you just have to suspend your disbelief. And believe us, any young people reading, this didn’t happen even then, in the days before email and mobile phones) to her group of lawyer friends back home, who gather in the local winebar to hear the latest reports. But, they are simultaneously hearing urgent news, in real time, relating to her holiday – a murder has been committed. So throughout there is a double time framework: ‘Now’, and ‘a few days before’, in Julia’s letters. Is that clear, then? But actually this doesn’t matter at all, surprisingly: I have a complete conviction that Sarah Caudwell worked with precise double timetables, but I’ve never bothered to check. (The book it most resembles in this respect is Wuthering Heights, which also has an over-complex reporting procedure.)
The Venice setting is lovely, the book is very funny, the characters are endearing and well-formed, and the murder is extraordinarily well-worked-out. And after the high spirits of the group, there is something very affecting about the final explanation, a hint of the sadness and waste, of everything going wrong.
The group of characters feature again in three more books (over nearly 20 years), much anticipated by Sarah Caudwell’s fans, and then she died. She was the daughter of the woman believed to be the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, and was a distinguished lawyer, an expert in tax law. (You’d guess that from the books, which often feature arcane financial questions).
This book just gets it right – it is funny and light-hearted without being that dreadful thing, a comedy thriller. And there is one last mystery: the best one of all. The main character and narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar, is surely almost unique in having a major role in four crime novels without our ever knowing whether s/he is a man or a woman…
The pictures show the original Penguin Crime cover of Thus was Adonis Murdered, and a view of Venice by Perry Photography.