It is awfully satisfying to come upon a book that is intelligent and well written, yet also takes the form of a murder mystery. So often these are mindless fluff pieces, but Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is witty, substantive, and charming. It begins with a testament to Scholarship, as the true champion of the story and the reason the hapless Julia Larwood is saved from dire circumstances:
If the events in which Julia Larwood became involved last September had not been subject to the scrutiny of the trained scholar–that is to say, my own–well, I do not say it is certain that Julia would even now be languishing in a Venetian prison.
What an introduction! I was immediately engrossed in this account of how the young woman came to be so detained. The gist of the novel is that Julia, an intelligent, girl in her mid-twenties with little to no common sense, takes a trip to Venice (on her own) where she is arrested on suspicion of murder. Her friends and associates at the Chancery Bar in London discover her plight, know she is not capable of committing such a crime, and seek to prove her innocence.
Structurally the story is interestingly constructed, being comprised of letters from Julia, the speculations and investigations of her four good friends, plus contributions from the all-knowing (nearly) and scholarly narrator. It doesn’t exactly work backwards, though we do begin at the end; rather it moves from the plot’s endpoints in, filling in gaps of information and character details until the entire story reveals itself. I found it a playful approach to a playful narrative that is very British in its sensibilities and follows a comedy-of-manners style of writing. It is the character quirks–such as Julia’s belief that Shakespeare is to be read instructionally as an authority on love and relationships–and ridiculous situations that make this novel so engaging and its good heart that render it so endearing.
Sarah Caudwell has three others in this series, and I recommend seeing for yourself just how Adonis was murdered.