Classic British Humour
This “novel of a murder in Venice” is a classic British mystery novel, a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. Written in 1981, it is far different in language and pace than who-dunnits and cozy mysteries written today. I almost delivered the book right back to the library after reading two pages, but I stuck it out because this book will be discussed at the up-coming Magna Cum Murder mystery convention.
The text is rambling, dense with parenthetical tangents, Latin, obtuse vocabulary, and obscure references to mythical gods, characters created by the “dramatist Shakespeare,” poetry, art, and literary figures. One would have to be a million-dollar Jeopardy champion to “get” it all.
Once I became accustomed to the rhythm of the speech and dizzying amount of information (useful, useless, clues, and red-herrings), I was hooked. There are puns and humorous references throughout the story that should elicit a laugh, but I am not well enough versed in the British culture, nor the arts, to catch them all. I can imagine serious Oxford scholars guffawing, though I can’t assume such people would stoop to being mystery fans.
At one point, the narrator explains “lectum difficillimum” a principle used when comparing one text to another to ascertain the original. One would choose the more difficult text as likely being the original. The author took the principle of choose-the-most-difficult to heart and delighted in challenging the reader with long, dense, and convoluted words and sentences.
The author, Sarah Caudwell, is herself British, but I sense she was poking fun at the genre and pretentious, overly educated characters popular in Arthur Conan Doyle’s era. Though the characters seemed underdeveloped, I enjoyed their wittiness and relationship to each other.
One remarkable oddity is: most of the sleuthing is done from hundreds of miles away by group of low-level lawyers, guided by their previous professor. Much of the action and current theories of guilt are communicated through letters written by their friend arrested for the murder.
What I like, aside from its wit, about the novel is the classic structure. Sarah Caudwell perfectly uses quirky characters, an astute amateur sleuth as narrator, and a half-dozen possible culprits who take turns as the main suspect and then the innocent by-stander. Just when you think you figured it out, a new fact clears your favorite suspect. For the finale, an unconventional ending ties all the strings together.
As popular as this novel, might have been in the eighties, I doubt it would have been a success with today’s typical reader. According to Amazon, the 1994 edition has earned an average of four stars from only fifty three readers. A 2012 edition has only two reviews. They love it or hate it.