The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989) ~Sarah Caudwell (Sarah Cockburn)
I say, Larwood, is this tax-planning business really as exciting as these Daffodil characters seem to think or do they just make believe it is to make life more interesting? I mean, if I'd known it was all about does and secret documents and biffing chaps in false beards, I wouldn't have minded going in for it myself.... (Michael Cantrip--by telex, p. 47)
This is the third in a quartet of fun, witty, twisty mysteries that Caudwell wrote about Hilary Tamar, law scholar and sometime amateur sleuth, and a group of junior barristers who have an uncanny knack for landing themselves in the middle of murder and mayhem. Our most recent adventure opens with Michael Cantrip and Larwood knee-deep in concocting a novel loosely-based (ahem) on themselves and the doings in their law office. Cantrip is immediately taken off to the Channel Islands ostensibly to advise on a tax case [though, if the Daffodil Settlement folk wanted really good tax advice, why didn't they ask Larwood, a more notable authority on the subject?].
The Channel Islands served (maybe still serve?) as tax havens for folks such as those who set up the Daffodil Settlement. A settlement (or other such conveyances) properly set up could protect people living in heavily taxed countries from being bothered by such pesky details like income tax or death duties or such. Part of the idea was to hide the identities of the real owners and beneficiaries so the Inland Revenue spies...er officials couldn't figure them out. But, generally speaking, the administrators of such things were supposed to know. Key word supposed.
Apparently, now that the chief administrator of the Daffodil Settlement has died in a swimming accident, nobody knows identity of any of the important players. And a situation has arisen that makes it imperative to know--otherwise about 9 million pounds is going to be paid out to the named beneficiary (which was supposed be just pretend). Cantrip has been brought in to advise the remaining administrators on "what the heck do we do now?" But then another member of the little group falls off a cliff...and it begins to look like somebody is trying to make sure the trust is paid out in a certain way.
Cantrip gets a bit worried about the whole situation and begins sending telex messages to his colleagues back in London keeping them abreast of the situation. Things get very tense and Professor Tamar goes buzzing off to the island of Sark to prevent Cantrip from being the next contestant in the death stakes. Will our intrepid amateur detective be in time? Does Tamar know who is behind it all and why?
****Possible spoiler ahead. Read at your own risk***
I absolutely love Cantrip this time around (and am ready to forgive him for having a name that makes me want to call him Catnip). The telex updates that he sends to his fellow lawyers are hilarious and following his adventures as he tries to foil whatever nefarious plans "old Wellieboots" has up his sleeve is worth the price of admission. I am tempted to give this a full five stars based on that alone--but I have to deduct a star for the solution. I mean, yes, there's all that tax and settlement and who's the real beneficiary business floating around to create a nice bit of suspicion all round. But, honestly, when the real villain of the piece crawls out of the woodwork, it feels a bit cliche. I have to agree with Larwood that the old-fashioned motive rearing its head amongst the overall flow of the plot seemed just a bit out of place. I can't really cry foul though--Caudwell does strew the clues about and it should have been possible for me to identify the culprit. But I definitely wasn't thinking about that motive, so the clues didn't point where they should have. ★★★★
First line (prologue): There will be much disappointment, I fear, among my fellow scholars.
First line (first chapter): "No, no, let me go or I'll scream," cried the lovely Eliane, her beautiful eyes filling with tears and her bosom heaving under the delicate silk of her blouse as she struggled to free herself from the vile embrace of the brutal Barrister's Clerk.
Trouble, so far as Julia had been able to discover, was what Colonel Cantrip had spent a lifetime of more than seventy years getting into. (p. 33)
So, the impasse--which I take to be the correct expression for a situation in which no one makes a pass at anyone--continued throughout my stay and until after dinner on my last evening. (Julia Larwood; p.68)
The thing that gets me, looking back on last night, is that there was actually a stage when I was quite looking forward to getting a solid eight hours of health-giving zizz. Which just goes to show how right all those chaps are who say what a waste of time it is expecting things to turn out the way you expect them to, because they never do. [Michael Cantrip--by telex; pp.83-4)
I do not doubt that in a crime novel having any pretention to modernity, the pen would be quite inadmissible. As a mere historian, however, there is nothing I can do about it. Nature, as we know, does imitate Art, but I fear that she all too often falls short of the highest standards. Were you to turn your attention from fictional crime to those reported in the newspapers, you would find that people are still leaving fingerprints and murdering spouses for all the world as if they were living in the 1920s. (Hilary Tamar; p. 151)
Yoo-hoo there, Larwood, it's me here--ace investigator Catseyes Cantrip reporting back to base. Bet you'll never guess what I'm doing in Monte Carlo. Well you won't, not in a million years, so I'll tell you. (Cantrip--by telex; p. 154)
I was on my own in the office at the back of the Alexandra and I suddenly saw this awful face at the window--sort of inhuman-looking, with glaring eyes and lots of teeth. First thing I thought was that it was a werewolf or something from outer space. Second thing I thought was that it looked just like old Wellieboots [Judge Welladay] when someone tries to cite the Duke of Westminster's case. Third thing I thought was that it actually was old Wellieboots, and I was right....Well, you don't find High Court judges prowling round Sark glaring through office windows just for the fun of the thing, do you? (Cantrip--by telex; pp. 154-5)
The trouble with real life is that you don't know whether you're the hero or just some nice chap who gets bumped off in chapter five to show what a rotter the villain is without anyone minding too much. (Cantrip; p. 173)
Nutty as a fruitcake. And the problem about people going nutty is that it's jolly difficult to tell whether they're harmlessly nutty or dangerously nutty. (Cantrip; p. 203).
Last line: No doubt she was right; but we had been dealing, as I pointed out, with a deplorably old-fashioned murder.
Deaths = 2 (one drowned; one fell from height)