The vintage mystery bloggers’ monthly challenge this month is TRAVEL AND HOLIDAYS. Last month and the month before I read perfectly appropriate books and then failed to produce my posts, so this month I’m going to write about a non-classic mystery, Sarah Caudwell’s THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED (1981). I know, I know, it’s only 35 years old; but it has the best-ever travel-related plot device and is in general a delightful work. My attempt to tease it apart it for this review has given me a heightened appreciation for its complex structure, tricky but (mostly) clued solution, and stylish language. There’s a three-way phone conversation towards the end that reads like a trio from a Mozart opera. Well, a parody of a Mozart opera, anyway.
The first of what turned out to be four comedy-of-manners mystery novels Caudwell wrote before her untimely death, THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED introduces us to Professor of Legal History at Oxford Hilary Tamar, who in turn introduces us to a cluster of his or her (this detail is never confirmed) younger lawyer friends. Timothy, Selena, (Desmond) Ragwort, and (Michael) Cantrip, barristers, share chambers in Lincoln’s Inn, and next door their friend Julia Larwood “sits all day, advising quite happily on the construction of the Finance Acts”; that is, she is a tax lawyer. It is late summer, or in university terms the Long Vacation. Hilary has come to London in pursuit of some research in medieval law and stops by to have coffee with the Lincoln’s Inn gang. Julia, we learn, has gone on holiday to Venice and is expected to provide a chronicle of her adventure in the form of letters. These letters are then read aloud to the group and form (with some other epistolary elements) a large part of the text of the novel.
Julia is notoriously impractical and accident-prone, and also highly susceptible to the charms of pale, pretty, slim young men. To insulate her as far as possible from the effects of the former characteristics, Selena has made sure she is attached to an organized tour, an Art Lover’s Tour in fact, and Ragwort has loaned her his precious guidebooks (some in English, some in Italian) to Venice and the cities of the Veneto, protected from the drips and stains inevitable in Julia’s vicinity by sturdy paper covers. (As to the latter tendency, far from countering, Julia intends to make the most of it.) As the friends discover in the first of Julia’s letters, she did not even manage to get on the plane before being separated from her passport, and before the flight takes off she has marked as fellow Art Lovers a stereotypically Empire-hearty, shorts-wearing military type, an “armour-plated matron,” a “rather pretty girl” traveling with a handsome but “peevish” American man, and two young men, one strong but gloomy and one more slender, who she later discovers is the possessor of “a face for which Narcissus might be forsworn and the Moon forget Endymion.” Swoon. “‘I don’t think she’s mentioned Praxiteles since that out of work actor in February,” Selena says.
When the friends next meet for the reading of two more of Julia’s letters, Timothy is to treat them to dinner because he too has to go to Venice, to consult with a client whose large tax obligation (due when he comes into a rich trust on his 25th birthday) can be relieved if he can only be persuaded to establish domicile in England; but he hates England. As they debate stratagems, Timothy receives a phone call whose burden has already been revealed to the reader: Julia has been detained as a suspect in a murder.
It is the beautiful young man, Ned, who has been stabbed, apparently while asleep in his bed at the Hotel Cytherea, and Julia is implicated because, well, she had been there earlier, and her copy of the Finance Act is still beside the bed.
Naturally Timothy will make Julia’s rescue a second goal of his trip to Venice, while the London team read the rest of Julia’s letters as they arrive, transmissions from the recent but AM (ante murder) past recounting the sometimes ominous actions and conversations of the Art Lovers as well as their travels round the cultural and hedonic attractions of Venice and the Veneto. We follow their guide, Graziella, to Piazza San Marco and the Doges’ Palace.
Graziella instructed us to note the development, as thereby exemplified, from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, and gave us a little lecture on the Venetian constitution. She spoke of it tenderly: it had been, it seemed, a splendid constitution, full of senates and checks and balances and other things delightful to the political theorist.
“If it was that fine,” asked Stanford, “why didn’t it last?”
“It lasted six hundred years, signor,” said Graziella. “And when it was quite worn out and would not work at all any more, it was exported, of course, to the United States of America.”
We hear about the marital tensions of Marylou and Stanford, the good-looking and well-off Americans; the possibly shady plans involving vintage furniture and objets d’art of the Major (Bob) and the matron (Eleanor); and how Julia served as guide on the group’s mainland trip to Asolo, Vicenza, and Verona, relying on Ragwort’s guidebooks. (She does complain that the Vicenza book is deceptive, but proudly reports her strategic triumph in finding many of the most important piazzi, palazzi, and chiesi (and their notable pictures) in Verona, somewhat startling in the face not only of her general talent for confusion but of her admittedly loose grasp of Italian.) We also hear about Julia’s romantic encounters first with a charming hotel waiter and then, yes, with the beautiful Ned, despite his being partnered with the gloomy young man, Kenneth, a sculptor.
And in the present the friends work to learn all they can about the other Art Lovers and to figure out what actually happened. Certainly Julia did not kill Ned, notwithstanding her loathing for his employers, the Inland Revenue Service. (Julia’s being a tax lawyer has not kept her out of the grasp of the tax authorities.) And in all likelihood even she could not have slept, and waked, next to a corpse without noticing the fact.
Except of course for Julia and the late Ned, the Art Lovers return to London and are there trailed, encountered, and interviewed by Hilary, Cantrip, Ragwort, and Selena. Eventually, applying the principle of lectum difficilium* (don’t forget, Hilary’s a scholar of legal history), quite a bit of larcenous thinking, and some fairly arcane art historical knowledge, Hilary untangles the narrative’s threads —Timothy’s tax and trust case is involved too — and sets up a dramatic showdown to provide the proof.
If you are curious to know, or think you’ve guessed, what that plot device I like so much might be, it is SPOILER ALERT! the confusion of a guidebook to Padua for a guidebook to Verona. You take a look at the two maps some day, with their loops of river and their San Whozit churches and Piazzas di this and that, and see if you don’t believe it could happen.
*That between two versions of a text, “the most difficult reading is to be preferred,” as Hilary puts it.