Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Shortest Way to Hades: Review

The Shortest Way to Hades by Sarah Caudwell has been hanging out on my TBR piles for quite some time. Caudwell came recommended to me at some point in some way--but I can't for the life of me remember how or when. I picked up two of her books (this and Thus Was Adonis Murdered) and knew I'd read them some time... Then, along came Kerrie with her Crime Fiction on a Euro Pass Challenge and I knew that Hades would be perfect for this week because it takes us to Greece. A weekend with the Scouts prevented me from getting it read in time to post, but now I can give it a full review.

One side-note before I begin: I either didn't realize when I bought it or had quite forgotten that this book qualifies for my loosely-defined sub-genre of academic mysteries. How delightful to have that surprise in store when I settled down to read!

What a fun, witty, twisty little mystery! It's all about an inheritance worth five million pounds and someone who thinks that's five million good reasons to commit a murder. You have dear old Sir James who had six children and who came up with an nifty, intricate trust that makes it rather difficult to inherit without paying up some rather hefty inheritance taxes. So, the family gets together and with the aid of Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Julia, and Ragwort--a somewhat irreverent group of London barristers--they come up with a way to break the trust, hurdle all the legal obstacles, and arrange for the beautiful Camilla, heiress-in-waiting, to scoop most of the pot without the worry of those irritating little death duties. Everybody's happy until we suddenly realize that dreary old Deidre has reached the age of majority and can now upset the applecart. But Deidre doesn't want much...just an extra 80,000 or so. A bit of wrangling ensues and then everybody's happy again.

Until Deidre has a most unfortunate fall from a balcony. No one wants a scandal so rather than allow it to be brought in as suicide, it is declared "death by misadventure." Julia is none too sure. She thinks it's murder and gets the barrister team to bring in Professor Hilary Tamar to help investigate. After hearing the facts, Hilary isn't sold on the murder theory. The Oxford don points out that if murder had been done, then the wrong girl died--the heiress should have been murdered. A brief investigation would seem to prove Hilary right, but then a series of mysterious "accidents" happen to or in the vicinity of the remaining family members and Hilary begins to doubt the conclusion. It all ends with a rather exciting confrontation at the Citadel at Corfu.

There is much witty banter among the barristers and a lovely little orgy scene in which "special" fudge mixed with champagne causes Selena to read Jane Austen aloud and Julia to explain tax law to all and sundry, never mind that the all and sundry have much more diverse activities in mind. It is entertaining to see how much detection can occur around a table littered with drinks at the Corkscrew. And it is of great interest that the reader is never really told if Hilary Tamar is the Oxford don male or the Oxford don female. No real clues to gender are ever given. Until John at Pretty Sinister Books pointed that out to me and I began really sitting up and taking notice, I assumed (since Hilary is usually a girl's name in the US) that Tamar was female. But, then, it is true that Hilary has often been a boy's name in Britain. The case has been made that Tamar is a woman because "she" is referred to as "dear Hilary." Pretty much throughout the book, the female barristers and legal-types are referred to by their first names (Julia, Selena, and....Hilary) and the male barristers by their last names (Cantrip, Ragwort...and Tancred, for the family). But then there's that pesky Timothy to throw things off balance and occasionally Julia is known by her last name--Larwood. So, how's a detective-minded reader to decide? It all makes for bonus puzzle to try to figure out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the dry British wit and subtle humor. There are also several very apt descriptions of the academic life and mind. Very appealing, fun, and interesting. Oh, and one other humorous side-note: all throughout the book, I always wanted to call Cantrip--Catnip. Always. Four stars.

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