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THE SIBYL IN HER GRAVE
by Sarah Caudwell
Reviewed by Jennifer Ashley
This last book by Sarah Caudwell was published shortly before her death. I was very sorry to hear of her death and the end of this witty series. Caudwell wrote just four books based on the young, hysterically funny London barristers who seem to get intricately involved in murder and international tax problems. The dry Oxford professor, Hilary Tamar (the author never reveals if Hilary is a man or a woman), observes his/her young friends and solves the puzzles at the Corkscrew, their favorite dining and drinking establishment.
This last story is about Julia Larwood's aunt, who lives in a tiny village in Sussex called Parson's Haver. In a series of letters to Julia, the aunt explains that she and two friends have come into a lot of money by speculating on the stock market, and that an aging fortune-teller and her strange young cousin have moved into the village. Not long after this, the fortune-teller dies, seemingly of a heart attack. The cousin, Daphne, inherits the house, the ravens, and the pet vulture, and decides to carry on predicting everyone's future (whether they like it or not).
Unfortunately, Daphne is an unpleasant, clinging person. She attaches herself to Maurice, the curate, who acts as the village's vicar. She grows jealous when Maurice becomes fond of a young man he meets by chance at the fortune-teller's funeral. She predicts dire futures for him and his friends, and strangely, many of her predictions come true.
Meanwhile, Selena, Julia's fellow barrister, has involved herself in the problems of a banker who fears that one of the two men he will choose as his successor is involved in insider trading. The plots mix up and twist around, and of course turn out to be connected. More murders occur, and poison abounds. Professor Tamar reads letters and listens to stories, and eventually presents the solution to all the problems.
My only quibble with this delightful novel is that it did not contain enough of Julia. Julia is the brilliant international tax lawyer who can't cross a room without falling, exists on a diet of Campari and cigarettes, and is bent on seducing every young man with a noble profile and long eyelashes. Disappointingly, Julia was not allowed full flourish in this story.
Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've heard criticism that Caudwell's stories are unbelievable and full of coincidence, and they are. I never pick up a Caudwell expecting a P.D. James-like take on reality. Who could or would actually keep a vulture as a pet? Is it believable that Selena's clients turn out to have a connection to Julia's aunt's village? Is it believable that yet another of the barrister group just happens to stay across the street from Selena's clients while vacationing in the south of France? Not really, but who cares?
Also, Caudwell writes epistolary novels--most of the action occurs in letters. Who writes such long and detailed letters these days? No one. But the letters let each character speak with his/her own voice, and even if they're unlikely, they can be outrageously funny.
No, her stories require suspension of disbelief. All disbelief. But it's worth it. Caudwell's novels are totally removed from the grim reality of the outside world. Not that the stories are cute and cuddly, because they're not. They're witty and dry and filled with dark humor. If you enjoy Rumpole of the Bailey, you will probably like Caudwell's series.
I rate this book the second best in the series. The first, THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED, was definitely the best, and the other two (THE SIRENS SANG OF MURDER and THE SHORTEST WAY TO HADES) run neck-and-neck as third place.
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