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Literature / Hilary Tamar

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On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Records Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or the passage of time. When at last I came to myself it was almost eleven, and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment.

The Hilary Tamar books are a series of witty first-person mystery novels by Sarah Caudwell, whose eponymous protagonist is probably one of the laziest detectives in literary history.

They are:

  1. Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
  2. The Shortest Way to Hades (1985)
  3. The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989)
  4. The Sibyl in Her Grave (2000)

Tropes featured include:

  • Amateur Sleuth: Hilary — who does most of the actual detecting — is an Oxford professor. Most of the other major characters are barristers.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Julia is generally agreed to be a brilliant tax lawyer. She also neglected to pay her own taxes for several years.
  • Chained to a Bed: Edmund Albany ends up this way in The Sibyl in Her Grave, after addressing a French dominatrix as tu when she would have preferred vous.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Several elderly relatives. Colonel Cantrip gets a mention in Thus Was Adonis Murdered and ends up playing Big Damn Heroes in a stolen helicopter in The Sirens Sang of Murder. Julia's Aunt Regina gets a brief mention in Thus was Adonis Murdered and The Sirens Sang of Murder before playing an important role in The Sibyl in Her Grave.
  • Clear Their Name: Thus Was Adonis Murdered is about Julia accidentally getting herself arrested for murder in Venice and Hilary having to clear her of it.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl:
    • Gender-bent and gay equivalent: in Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Kenneth Dunfermline is in passionate, all-consuming love with Ned, who in return doesn't take his feelings very seriously at all, being described by a third party as 'flighty' and happy to return advances from others. Not to mention his sleeping with Julia. Kenneth and Ned are working a scam in which Ned impersonates the heir to an immense fortune; Ned has many, many, second thoughts once the actual heir is murdered—and his final letter to Kenneth mentions that Ned's worked out that one of the reasons Kenneth talked him into the con is that it will effectively cut Ned off from anyone and everyone who knew him before, as well as preventing anyone else from getting close enough to discover the truth in the future—in other words, Kenneth gets Ned completely isolated and all to himself forever.
    • Non-romantic equivalent: Daphne in The Sybil in Her Grave latches onto Maurice and clearly resents the hell out of his relationship with Derek. She steals the Virgil frontispiece so Maurice will think Derek is responsible, then gradually isolates Maurice from all his other friends as well.
  • Could Say It, But...: The prologue of The Shortest Way to Hades starts by violently denying that the book is in any way fictional, before going on to talk about what would have been in the prologue if it were a novel rather than a historical document.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: When describing a sweater that Daphne made for Maurice in The Sibyl in Her Grave, Julia says only, "It is not for me to speak disparagingly of Daphne's skill at knitting, as it is undoubtedly greater than mine."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Daphne dramatically declares that she'd sooner become a Streetwalker than disobey the terms of her aunt's will. Regina remarks that she doesn't think that's a good idea—there's not much of a market for that kind of thing in their small Sussex town, and Daphne probably wouldn't be very good at it anyway.
  • Distinction Without a Difference:
    "It's not exactly", said Selena, "that [Julia]'s unobservant. It's just that she doesn't always notice what's happening."
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Cantrip mentions that he's been asked by his old friend Clementine Derwent to go with her to Jersey and advise on a case there. Julia instantly turns icy and acts like a jealous girlfriend. Since the romance between Julia and Cantrip is long over, Hilary is confused, until Julia makes a few pointed remarks about how the only reason a UK lawyer would be needed in the Channel Islands would be for tax stuff, and since tax law is her specialty, and not Cantrip's...
    "The chagrin of a woman displaced in her lover’s affections is as nothing compared with that of a barrister superseded in the favour of a leading firm of solicitors. "
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: In The Sirens Sang of Murder, Cantrip goes to bed with one of the two ladies of the Daffodil trust, quite willingly... but he doesn't know that the ladies switched places after the lights went out. Cantrip would have been happy to go to bed with Gabrielle, but Gabrielle doesn't know that and thinks Cantrip considers her with the same fondness as he would an older female relative. Regardless, deliberately fooling a man into going to bed with a different woman than he thinks he's going to bed with (especially since a similar act in All's Well That Ends Well is mentioned several times as Foreshadowing), is dubious consent at best, and yes, rape at worst.
  • Driven to Suicide: The murderers of Thus Was Adonis Murdered. Ned kills himself when the police come, and he knows the jig is up. Kenneth kills himself when he realizes what Ned has done.
  • Epistolary Novel: None of the novels are full examples of this, but all of them narrate significant portions of their action through letters and (perhaps even more quaintly to the 21st century reader) telex messages.
  • Gender-Concealing Writing: Hilary Tamar's gender is never revealed. The prologue to The Sibyl in Her Grave all but comes out and says that Hilary is doing this on purpose, believing that this kind of personal detail is irrelevant to the cases that they are describing.
  • Foreshadowing: as befits a scholar, if Hilary's narration mentions a specific literary work, something in that work will have something in common with the current murder—though it's sometimes quite obscure.
    • In The Shortest Way to Hades, Selena's lover Sebastian, a fellow scholar, talks at great length about the transmission of the texts of Euripides, specifically the haplography note  in 'Helena'. The motive for murder is because of a haplographic mistake in a will that accidentally disinherits the murderer.
    • In The Sirens Sang of Murder, the Shakespeare play All's Well That Ends Well is mentioned several times. Clementine's alibi is that she was in bed with Cantrip at the time; however she and Gabrielle had pulled a Bed Trick, exactly like the characters in the play. This actually borders on Red Herring, as Hilary dismisses Clementine as a suspect on other grounds, and Gabrielle's jealous husband assumes she's slept with Cantrip anyway.
    • In The Sibyl in Her Grave, Maurice's most treasured possession is an illuminated frontispiece of Virgil's Second Eclogue - a poem narrated by an older shepherd who is passionately in love with a beautiful young man. Comparisons are often drawn between vicars and shepherds, so Maurice falling head over heels for Derek/Terry shouldn't be that surprising.
  • Her Code Name Was "Mary Sue": Julia and Cantrip's novel Chancery!, described in The Sirens Sang of Murder, fits this to a T. The two protagonists are obvious stand-ins for them, the villains are modeled after Cantrip's romantic rival and a judge Julia is having trouble with, and so on.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Julia and Selena, complete with the obligatory continuous Mistaken for Gay.
  • I Have Many Names: Discussed with reference to Greek places in The Shortest Way to Hades:
    We came without further misadventure to the island which I call Corfu, which its inhabitants call Kekira, which ancient historians call Corcyra, and which Homer calls Scheria, the land of the Phaecians—never try to tell me that the Greeks don't do this on purpose.
  • I Have This Friend: In The Shortest Way to Hades, Lucian and Lucinda try this on Hilary, who doesn't buy it.
  • Immoral Journalist: The staff of the tabloid The Scuttle, which employs Cantrip to read over some of its articles and make sure they stay just safe from actually committing libel.
  • Intoxication Ensues: In The Shortest Way to Hades, the fudge that Julia and Selena eat while at Rupert Galloway's party/orgy is spiked, leading them to "cast off all conventional restraints and devote [themselves] without shame to the pleasures of the moment." In Selena's case, this means reading a copy of Pride and Prejudice while ignoring anyone who tries to talk to her; in Julia's case, it means explaining the effect of Section 478 of the Taxes Act to anyone who's willing to listen.
  • Last-Name Basis: (Desmond) Ragwort and (Michael) Cantrip. Also, in the letters he writes to her, Cantrip habitually addresses Julia as "Larwood".
  • Lethal Chef: Various people remark that Daphne is not good at following recipes, particularly in terms of proportion. The trope becomes tragically literal when both Isabella and Maurice die after taking medicine prepared by her.
  • Mondegreen Gag: One of these triggers a Red Herring in Thus Was Adonis Murdered. In the lead up to the murder, Julia overhears a conversation with the line 'Bruce stole an armchair and a rococo mirror I rather liked'. Several efforts are made to find out more about Bruce; it's not until the final act that Hilary reveals that Bruce never existed. What Julia, "who is not well up on the baroque and rococo periods", overheard was actually 'Brustolon armchair and a rococo mirror I rather liked", Andrea di Brustolon being a celebrated furniture maker in the seventeenth century.
  • Never Suicide: Deirdre's death in The Shortest Way to Hades is initially ruled a suicide.
  • Noodle Incident: Everything involving Cantrip and Julia's past romantic relationship seems to fall into this category. There's one April Fool's Day incident involving spiders, something else that happened right after Julia won a case about goldfish, and so on.
  • No Sense of Direction: Julia gets lost constantly; this is an important plot point in Thus Was Adonis Murdered.
  • Once an Episode: One of Hilary's friends at 62 New Square note  gets into a situation where Hilary's intervention saves their life. In Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Julia is in danger of life imprisonment in Italy and disbarment (Julia is not the type to cope well in prison, and her legal work is pretty much the only thing she can do without adult supervision). In The Shortest Way to Hades Selena is nearly blown up and is held at spear-point. In The Sirens Sang of Murder Cantrip is drugged and left to drown.
  • Oop North: Geoffrey Bolton in The Sibyl in Her Grave is a bank director with a prominent accent of this sort. It turns out that he's exaggerating the accent — and the stereotypes associated with it — to mess with a co-worker he doesn't like.
  • Prodigal Family: In The Sirens Sang of Murder, Cantrip's uncle Colonel Cantrip, who is occasionally shipped off to London for Cantrip to look after. (He was first mentioned in Thus Was Adonis Murdered, when Cantrip needed to con a retired soldier and planned to mention his uncle in doing so. Cantrip figured there was little hope that the suspect hadn't heard of him.) The Colonel is an elderly retired soldier who belongs to a club that was founded by military veterans whose behaviour was so outrageous that no other club would have them. (The club staff don't turn a hair when the Colonel fires a gun to prove that yes, he really was threatening someone with a loaded weapon.)
  • Really Gets Around: Julia has slept with quite a lot of handsome young men.
  • Red Herring: Quite a few elaborate ones. In particular, The Sibyl in Her Grave, all the mysterious deaths turn out to be entirely unrelated to the insider trading problem that initially attracts Hilary's attention to them.
  • Sorry, I'm Gay: Julia deliberately makes Malvoisin think she's a lesbian in The Sirens Sang of Murder in an attempt to make it easier to turn down his advances without ruining their business relationship.
  • Theme Initials: The Shortest Way to Hades has twins Lucian and Lucinda, as well as their younger half-brother Leonidas.
  • Too Dumb to Live: in The Shortest Way to Hades Dierdre's murderer calls her this due the specific circumstances of her death. Looked at factually, it's hard to disagree.
    Dierdre's killer: You'd have thought she wanted to get herself murdered.
  • Troll: Cantrip with access to a telex machine.
    His messages, covering a wide range of topics and sometimes employing various ingenious noms de telex, were addressed not merely to his friends, acquaintances, and enemies in every corner of the world but often to total strangers whose telex number became available to him. Could he have contented himself with mere composition, no harm would have come of it, but seldom if ever was he able to deny himself the ultimate rapture of pressing the key marked "Enter" to transmit the message to its destination.
He eventually gets banned from using it, after a transparent attempt to get the British government to promote him to Queen's Counsel by sending the Lord Chancellor's office the message "Give Cantrip Silk".
  • Unreliable Narrator: A minor example: everything that happens is probably described accurately, but Hilary tends to represent his/her own actions and motives in a more flattering light than they probably merit.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Cantrip has all the right mannerisms for this trope, despite being gainfully employed.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: In The Sirens Sang of Murder, financiers who are managing a specific, valuable trust fund keep dying mysteriously. Our protagonists naturally assume it's related to the nine million pounds that are at stake. It turns out that the financiers are indeed being murdered, but every likely suspect has an airtight alibi and none of the protagonists can crack the case. As Hillary points out once the mystery is solved, this is because they're acting as though they're in a modern crime thriller where the motive is money. If they'd taken a moment to think about things like a Victorian novel, it would be obvious that, when a married woman is away from her husband for long stretches and the men around her start getting bumped off, it's because her jealous husband is murdering what he thinks are her lovers.