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.