Caroline Minuscule

William Dougal is a graduate student in paleography, the study of ancient writing. But don’t picture an earnest scholar or a warrior for truth. No, Dougal feels an “enormous lassitude” come over him when he enters a library, and his morality is very open to ambiguity — so open, in fact, that when he arrives at his tutor’s office for a consultation and finds Dr. Gumper murdered, he decides that becoming involved would be terribly inconvenient (it would upset supper plans with his dazzling girlfriend Amanda) and he slopes quietly off without telling anyone.

This doesn’t prevent Dougal from becoming involved, however. Oh, no. Enter the suave and faintly menacing James Hanbury, who invites Dougal to do the work Gumper was doing before he was killed: identifying and translating a manuscript written in Caroline Minuscule. Simple enough, for a graduate student in paleography, right? Except that this leads to murder, villainy, disguise, treasure-hunting, threats, a missing cache of diamonds, and a miserable night on a boat, among other things.

I loved this book. I loved it from the title (faintly reminiscent of some tiny woman, except it turns out to be an ancient script, of course it does, how charming) to the narrator, who reacts with faint, witty surprise at his own lack of moral fiber. Dougal is out for his own self-interest from the beginning, and instead of being repelled, I was enchanted. I loved the twisty plot, and the dialogue, and Amanda, with her wide-eyed, matter-of-fact rapacity, and I loved the secondary characters, and the ending. Before reading about Andrew Taylor’s Caroline Minuscule on Harriet Devine’s blog a couple of weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. I started with this book because it was his first novel. I could not be happier: a distinctive, unconventional, weak-kneed, utterly charming character in a well-written, well-plotted mystery, and there are lots more by this author to read! This book was a delight, despite, or perhaps because of, its completely sympathetic amorality. I feel I’ve struck gold. Or possibly diamonds. Either way, I’ll be following Dougal (discreetly, of course, so as not to frighten him) as far as he will take me.

*Note: I originally read a library copy, the hardcover from 1982, and the author photo from the back cover might well have been William Dougal himself. The man was smirking at me every time I closed the book, such a wicked knowing smile. I can’t find that author photo online. I wish I could show it to you. It added a real flavor to the novel.

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18 Responses to Caroline Minuscule

  1. litlove says:

    I really must get hold of this book – I’m a fan of Taylor’s from his Lydmouth series of crime novels, brilliantly set in 50s austerity Britain. I’ve heard good things about this book before (probably from Harriet, too),so thank you for reminding me of it.

    • Jenny says:

      Litlove, thank you for the recommendation on where to go after I finish the novels about Dougal. This one was just delightful.

  2. Deb says:

    I second the recommendations of Taylor’s Lydmouth series–but do try to read them in order as characters and relationships do develop and change over the course of the books. Among his standalone novels, I very much liked Taylor’s BLEEDING HEARTS SQUARE. I was less enthralled with his “Fallen Angel” series about a female serial killer. Anyway, in case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a link to Taylor’s website listing of all of his published work:

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Deb, I always read series in order. I’m a bit compulsive about that kind of thing. Thanks for the link, what a help!

  3. Jenny says:

    Ancient manuscript-related intrigue and deception? How can I resist?

    Incidentally, this book really, really sounds like a case that would be featured on MathNet, on Square One, which I watched when I was a kid.

    • Jenny says:

      You can’t resist! And I watched Square One, too! I could sing the theme song right NOW, but you wouldn’t want that.

  4. Gavin says:

    Paleography? That sounds so intriguing that I’m going to have to find a copy of this one right away. I don’t know Andrew Taylor and thank you for the introduction.

    • Jenny says:

      I had never heard of him either. This is why I love book blogs — little hidden corners of things turn out to be wonderful.

  5. Steph says:

    Oh this sounds like so much fun! I love the idea of a morally dubious scholar… I can never resist books that involve researchers…

  6. Stefanie says:

    Oh this sounds like fun! And it appears my library has it. Hurray!

  7. This sounds utterly charming! I’ve never even heard of this author—certainly something I ought to correct.

    • Jenny says:

      I hadn’t either! I always love hearing about new authors I turn out to love (which is why my TBR is seven miles long.)

  8. Kathleen says:

    This sounds like a hidden gem that I missed when it was first published. I love discovering books like these that I missed and need to read now. Thanks for a great review.

  9. Kristen M. says:

    I’m guessing that this is the same Andrew Taylor whose newest book is sitting on my TBR shelf right now. It will be my first book by him but even if I’m not 100% sold after it, I’ll have to pick this one up. It sounds like something I would love.

  10. chasing bawa says:

    This sounds fabulous. I’ve previously read Bleeding Heart Square and The American Boy (about a young Poe in London) both of which I enjoyed, but I’m a sucker for anything to do with libraries and academia…

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, so am I! That was part of the appeal of Caroline Minuscule, for sure. The sequel abandons that side of things, but it was still fun.

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