Sarah Caudwell wrote a short series of mysteries in the 1980s that featured a group of young, attractive barristers who managed to stumble into and out of murderous situations. The books are clever, arch, drenched in irony, not even faintly naturalistic, and peculiarly of their era in the gleeful emphasis on polymorphous sexuality. The narrator, ambiguously-named Hilary Tamar, could even be a man or a woman — though no straight man I know is capable of describing another man as looking like “an invitation card for a rather frivolous wake.” It’s this narrative voice — a cross between Wodehouse and Edmund Crispin — that makes these novels entertaining.
Thus Was Adonis Murdered takes place in Venice and is in form a locked-room mystery. The Adonis in question is a lawyer with the Internal Revenue and less interesting than his fetching profile at first makes him seem. The plot is parceled out largely in epistolary form, as barrister Julia Larwood writes an account of her Venetian vacation to her colleagues back in London. Because Julia is hapless, sexually voracious, polysyllabic, and accused of the murder, her letters provide a usefully limited account of the Venetian action. Also funny: of one military bore/boor on her Art Lovers’ Tour, she writes, “I would think it odd, he said, that he had never married. I did not in fact think it at all odd — the statistical chances against any woman being prepared to endure both the hairiness of his legs and the tedium of his conversation seemed to me to be negligible.” As I read that over, it seems wrong: surely it should be “the statistical chances of…?” I didn’t notice while reading. The book presents such a glittering, fascinating surface that looking for qualities like sentiment or logic in it seems, somehow, churlish.