Friday, August 13, 2010

Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Caudwell, Sarah. Thus Was Adonis Murdered. New York: Dell. 1981.

Before I get into a real discussion of this book, I have to tell you two stories about it. The first is how we happen to own a copy of it, which is a story about Bob and me. The second is a story about a number of characters, including my mother.

During Bob's and my first summer together, when we'd only been dating for about six months, he had plans to take a trip to Italy with his brother. That's when I discovered that he likes to read novels about the places he's going, just before he travels there. He came into the library where I was working at the time and asked me to help him find novels set in Italy. Using something called The Fiction Catalog (I'm not sure that even exists anymore. I haven't used it since the Internet came along), we found The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, which fit the bill nicely. He found other things, too, but I don't remember what they were.

Meanwhile, I had managed to find this title, described as being set partly in Venice. Amazingly enough, I was able to get a copy to give to him as a little going away gift the night before he left. It was a small paperback, perfect for the plane. Two weeks later, he arrived home from Italy, and, among other things, I was eager to know what he thought of Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which had sounded so good, and which I hoped to borrow.

"Oh, it wasn't really what you thought it was. I couldn't get into it."

I didn't know him well enough back then to know that that didn't necessarily mean I wouldn't love it (or that he might not even have bothered to crack its spine). All I knew was that I was a bit crushed that my gift had not been a success, but I bravely made no mention of this fact. I decided not to borrow it, though. Why didn't I question his assertion that "It wasn't really what I thought it was?" Such is the folly of a new romance.

Fast forward sixteen years, and here's your second story. This book is chosen for the CT mystery book club. Those of you who have borrowed and lent books from and to me may know that I have a terrible habit of leaving things stuck inside books. I pulled this book (which, of course, came along with Bob and all his other books when we got married, and which, by the way, I have, over the years, now that I know I shouldn't always listen to Bob's assessment of books, considered, from time-to-time, reading -- if for no other reason than that the cover was obviously done by Edward Gorey -- but, for some reason, never have). I pull the book from the shelf, start flipping through the pages, and find stuck inside it, a short letter from my mother, dated July 1997. Obviously, she had just been to visit Bob and me and had taken this book from the shelf without telling us. Her letter begins,

"I borrowed this book, so I could finish reading it. The author has a wonderful sense of humor!"

Next time I have to decide whether I should listen to Bob or to my mother when it comes to a book, I think I'll listen to my mother. Wonderful sense of humor indeed! At one point, I laughed until my stomach hurt. I have to warn you, though, before you go racing off to find a copy of this, that the humor, like (I am sure) the sherry the characters drink, is very, very dry. It is also very British -- full of that British self-mockery I so love, but I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea and that there are those who might be inclined to label it "precious" (but we won't name any names, here, of people who went off to Italy without me the first year we knew each other).

I really had no idea what to expect when I began this book. The endorsements use terms like "erudite," "witty," and "hilarious comedy of manners," but we all know how reliable endorsements can be. I have to admit that I was not much impressed by the first line of the book,

"Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but truth." (p.1)

I don't know about you, but that's not exactly the sort of first line that makes me think. "Ooo, this is gonna be fun!" No, I am afraid my first thought was, "Oh, God, some stupid thing I have to read for tenth-grade English that I'm gonna hate, and then I am going to be quizzed on how that first line fits into the whole book." But then Caudwell immediately begins to introduce the reader to the characters, and this reader couldn't keep herself from liking them all.

I quickly discovered that (had I been quizzed) I could easily say that the first line of the book reads that way because Hilary, a somewhat full of himself (or herself. We never know, right? Those of you who also read it, Hilary's gender is never mentioned, is it? I kept wondering if I'd missed that fact but actually came to think it was a wonderful ploy on Caudwell's part not to identify her narrator as either male or female. I've experimented with "genderless" characters myself on occasion, and enjoy it, but it's hard to do. I admire someone who can keep it up for the length of a novel) Oxford Don, just speaks that way. Hilary narrates the story (to some degree), and we get used to it; it's okay. I loved Hilary, despite his/her manner of speaking, for being so clueless about his/her own faults, while (of course) being so aware of others, in a way that might be obnoxious if it weren't such a clever ploy, and if the character weren't so endearing in other ways (i.e. for loving the other characters so much, underneath it all).

Hilary happens to be friends with five young barristers (all of whom went to Oxford, except one who went to Cambridge. I probably don't need to tell you that there is plenty of the sort of joking you would expect in reference to the poor soul who was feeble enough of mind to have attended Cambridge). One of these barristers Julia goes off to Venice in pursuit of love (or at least a happy fling, although her sentimental character would prefer love) and soon finds herself accused of murder. Julia is an endearing, hilarious character, the sort of person who is highly brilliant but quite unaware of what goes on in the world around her. If she were a cartoon character, boulders would roll off cliffs right beside her; anvils would drop from high rises, missing her by inches; bridges would collapse the minute she stepped off of them; and she'd be busy studying her map, never noticing a thing.

The plot is actually more complicated than that (much more) and includes tourists on an art lover's adventure, shady antique dealers, a wealthy heir who is terrified of England (and who can blame him?) due to a horrible public school experience he had there, and the Inland Revenue. To figure out some of the main clues in the book while happily reading and laughing along takes someone with far, far more experience reading mysteries (not to mention someone who is far, far more clever -- an Oxford Don, say) than I, but that didn't matter. I loved the solution (and the very sneaky clues) once they were presented to me. I didn't feel the urge to cry, "Foul play!" as I sometimes do when a murderer, and how he/shedunit, is revealed to me. It worked. All I could think was, "Touche." (Damn blogger and my inability to put that accent where it so belongs.)

I also liked the way this book was written. It was a mixed bag. Some of these so-called "brilliant" experimental writers out there today could take a lesson from Caudwell. Here we had somewhat of a first-person narrative. We had somewhat of an epistolary novel. We had dialogue in place of description. It worked beautifully. I was barely aware of all the different forms.

A good deal of the novel is nothing but long letters from Julia written to her young friends back in London (and, thus, to Hilary, who has come to London to work but seems to be spending every lunch and coffee hour with Julia's friends while she is away). The letters are sent to Selena and read out loud by her to the other 3 (all young men, one of whom is about to go off to Italy himself to deal with the heir who is terrified of England) and Hilary. The contents of the letters are interspersed with dialogue from the reader and listeners, and I have rarely encountered a technique that so well provided for fantastic characterization. The rest of the book is Hilary's narration and some key correspondence involving the answer to whodunit in the end. It all tied together beautifully. I'm envious of Caudwell's abilities (so green, actually, people might start thinking I'm The Grinch).

The book also inspired me to do some other reading. Julia makes some very amusing references to Desdemona and Othello, which had me pulling Othello off the shelves. Next thing I know, I was done reading the entire play (argue all you want with me, but that is absolutely my favorite Shakespeare tragedy, perfect in every way but mostly because Iago is one of the most perfect villains ever written). Next up, in the not-too-distant future, will be Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I'm thinking I ought to read some more Italian authors (any suggestions anyone?). I went online to see what else Caudwell has written and discovered three more titles in the series. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on those.

Meanwhile, because he witnessed my laughing so hard over this book, Bob keeps asking me if he shouldn't try it again. I'm not sure. My sense of humor, my British background, and I have rubbed off on him over the years. Maybe he won't find it as "precious" as he once might have, but I'm not positive about that. I am positive, however, that if he does read it and doesn't like it, I won't be crushed (that's what sixteen years can do to new romance).


litlove said...

How interesting. I love Sarah Caudwell and think she is very, very funny. I'd never considered it as British humour before, though, which just goes to show that it's always your own culture you can't see. Very glad you liked it, Emily!

Dorothy W. said...

I really enjoyed the book, and most of the people in the meeting last night did too, although Hobgoblin not so much. I suppose he's like Bob in this instance. But I too loved the humor and also the use of letters. We all agreed that Hilary could be either male or female, although I personally read it as female -- but just because I forgot that men can be Hilary too! The book took on a new light after I realized that.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, oh yes, there is a lot in there that I don't think many Americans would understand (luckily, they aren't the sorts of Americans who tend to read my blog. Of course, that may be because, for some reason, my blog seems to have about as many British readers as it does American).

Dorr, funny. For the longest time, I assumed (not sure why) that Hilary was a man. When I suddenly came to the realization that I had no evidence of that fact, I wondered why. I'm glad to hear others enjoyed it as much as I did.

Melwyk said...

I loved this book (all 4 of the books she wrote) for all the reasons you mention. I found them very funny, very clever, and enjoyed the nonspecific gender of Hilary.

Stefanie said...

The book sounds good. Love the stories that go along with it! And I agree, Othello is one of the best plays ever and Iago a most perfect villain.

Emily Barton said...

Melwyck, I can see I am going to have to read the others.

Stef, you must read it. You'll love it and glad I'm not the only one who thinks Othello is one of the best.