The Sibyl in Her Grave

You guys. YOU GUYS. There is a fourth mystery by Sarah Caudwell!

Wait. Let me begin at the beginning. Back in the early ’90s, I discovered Caudwell’s books. There were three of them, legal whodunits that read like a glass of champagne: fizzy, light, intoxicatingly delicious. Each of them revolves around a legal crime, investigated and solved in a leisurely, I’d-rather-do-this-than-do-any-work sort of way by a group of young barristers at Lincoln’s Inn: Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Julia Larwood, and (my own favorite and alter ego) Selena Jardine. The books are narrated by their friend and mentor, Hilary Tamar, a professor of Medieval Law, whose gender is never revealed — though this isn’t an interesting gender-play, just a small running joke. The mysteries are enchanting: sly puzzles, witty comedies of manners. Look at this, from the first book, Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Records Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or the passage of time. When at last I came to myself it was almost eleven, and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.

The last of the three, The Sirens Sang of Murder, was written in 1989, and after reading it, I mooched about unhappily for a while, assuming that Sarah Caudwell had simply stopped writing mysteries, and eventually resigned myself to my fate. Caudwell died in 2000.

And then. Then! I discovered ten years later that in 2000, the very year of her death, she had published a fourth mystery! The Sibyl in Her Grave, like the others, involves a legal crime (insider dealing and tax fraud) which leads to several deaths, and the puzzle is beautifully put together, convoluted but clean. But the real pleasure is in the writing. Here is an excerpt from a letter from Ragwort to Julia, after he has rescued a man from a dominatrix:

Natasha, I am relieved to say, took my intervention in good part, evidently regarding it as a matter for amusement rather than reproach. Indeed, though she made a good deal of fun of me for my soft-heartedness, she was perhaps quite pleased that I had saved her the possible unpleasantness of releasing Albany herself. He had spoken to her, I gathered, in a manner which she found lacking in respect; she had lost her temper and taken her revenge, without much thought for the consequences. When I enquired cautiously as to the nature of the insult offered her, it turned out that he had addressed her as tu rather than vous, not having, in her opinion, any right to do so. It just shows how careful one has to be — the French can be very touchy about these things.

I read this book with complete delight, marred only by the fact that this now really is the last mystery I will ever read by this author. I cannot urge you strongly enough to track these down, and pour yourself a nice glass of champagne to go with them.

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24 Responses to The Sibyl in Her Grave

  1. Harriet says:

    Never heard of this author but how great these books sound. The first quotation just made me laugh aloud — how well I recognise this syndrome! Thanks.

  2. bibliolathas says:

    Oh, that is so exciting that there’s a 4th volume. I loved that series.

  3. litlove says:

    Oh I got all excited there, and then I counted the novels I have by her – and there are already four on my bookshelf. But I completely agree that she is wonderful and they are some of the crime novels I love the best.

    • Jenny says:

      They even reward re-reading! So many mysteries are written every year, it’s hard to think that pockets of gems like this might be hiding anywhere.

  4. Susan E says:

    Wonderful to have some good news first thing in the a.m! Love Sarah Caudwell’s mysteries. How did this book slip through the cracks? But how nice to have it to look forward to….Thanks!

  5. Lisa says:

    I’m so glad you found the last one! I first read them back in 2000, just when The Sibyl in her Grave was published – so straight through all four. I thought The Sibyl had a slightly different tone than the others, something of a “rage against the dying of the light.”

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know — I thought it was about the same, maybe even a little funnier. Though the reunion of two of the characters was fairly touching.

  6. Jenny says:

    I glanced at this review in my Google Reader and thought, meh, this doesn’t look that interesting, but then you convinced me with your words. I think I am mainly swayed by the fact of finding a book by an awesome author when you thought no more books existed. :p The excerpts are charming! I wish I’d known about this in time to get one for my friend tim for her birthday, it sounds like the sort of thing she and I would both like.

    • Jenny says:

      PS Have now read the first of these books and am engaged in acquiring the other three. :)

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, I’m just delighted you liked them! I know you’re not always a fan of mysteries, but I am so, so glad you enjoyed the first one of these. I thought they’d be up your alley.

  7. The only one I read was The Sibyl In Her Grave, and I was so depressed to discover that it was her last that I never went to the back list. But it was darn good and I should do that!

  8. smithereens says:

    Your excitement is contagious! I’m adding her name in my wishlist immediately.

  9. sakura says:

    I think I’ve got her first mystery on my wishlist. I’ve got lots of others to read first, but I’ll be looking forward to reading Caudwell’s novels.

  10. Bina says:

    Thank you for bringing these books to my attention, embarrassingly enough I hadn’t known they existed! Fingers crossed my library is better informed! ;)

    • Jenny says:

      I think she’s not so well known — only four books in the series, and then she died. But she’s well worth knowing.

  11. Pingback: Review: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell « Jenny's Books

  12. Kailana says:

    I added the first book to my library list yesterday. I am looking forward to the series!

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