(Note: I’m posting about a mystery novel. I don’t reveal the killer, but it’s almost impossible to talk about a mystery novel without spoiling something. If you’re planning to read this book, proceed with caution.)
The thing that usually gets mentioned when people talk about Hilary Tamar, the legal historian/amateur detective who appeared in four novels by Sarah Caudwell, is that we never learn Hilary’s gender. You might assume from the emphasis placed on that fact that these books spend a lot of time teasing the audience. Actually, it’s the least noticeable or interesting thing about them. Most readers probably get a pretty good mental image of Hilary from his/her narration, even if it’s a different image for everybody. Hilary is big on literary references and hangs out in wine bars with a group of young British lawyers whose misadventures provide him/her with cases, so my mental image of Hilary looks exactly like Horace Rumpole.
Caudwell wrote books in the form of classical detective tales and the style of P.G. Wodehouse (with a little extra frankness about sex). They’re painlessly loaded with the lore of British estate and tax law. The Sirens Sang of Murder, the third in the series, is set in various offshore tax havens. The plot is driven by the absurd lengths to which British millionaires go to avoid taxes, and I actually managed to sort of understand the arcane legal contortions. Caudwell wrote the kind of books that make me feel smarter while I’m reading them.
The Sirens Sang of Murder is set at a specific point in time technologically: the solicitors’ office has just installed a Telex machine, sort of a telegraph hooked up to a typewriter. Michael Cantrip, one of the more airheaded regular cast members, is nuts about it and narrates most of his scenes through his voluble telexes. A few years later he’d have sent faxes, and later still emails.
At one point another regular, Selena Jardine is unhappy with one of the clues—a distinctive pen dropped at a murder scene. It’s old-fashioned, something out of an old detective novel, and she doesn’t find it remotely believable. “People do what books have taught them to do and feel what books have taught them to feel—it is curiously difficult to do otherwise,” observes Hilary. Selena thinks about crime as realistic modern police procedurals taught her to do.
In the real world, lawyers complain about the “CSI effect”, the assumption by jurors that forensic science works just as magically as it does on TV. Stories have power. Everyone sees the world through the filter of the stories they read and watch and listen to.
Sirens’s cast is focused on the financial shenanigans surrounding the Daffodil Trust. They’re looking for a realist motive, a motive that makes some kind of sense. They miss one obvious possibility because it’s intruded into their narrative from romantic (in the archaic sense) literature. The real killer has been reading different books.
We in the audience, as real people reading a mystery novel, can’t help looking at Hilary’s case through the lens of detective fiction—because, heck, it is detective fiction. At one point, a revelation pointed to one obvious suspect who appeared to fit all the clues, some of which had been laid very subtly, very early on. I knew he was a red herring. I hadn’t worked this out through a Holmesian deductive leap. I just had information that Hilary didn’t: I knew I was only two-thirds of the way through the book. What kind of crappy detective novel would reveal the killer with 80 or 90 pages left to go?