For mystery lovers and literary connoisseurs alike, 2000 was a year of loss. Gone are two masters of language, one with over 30 works to his credit (George V. Higgins), the other with only four (Sarah Caudwell). It is some comfort that each gave readers one last glimpse of literary skill before passing on: Higgins (At End of Day) captured the way people really speak; Caudwell captured the way many people would dearly love to speak. Her first three novels (The Shortest Way to Hades, Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Sirens Sang of Murder) brought readers into the elegant, urbane world of Hilary Tamar, Oxford fellow and mentor to London barristers Cantrip, Selena, Ragwort, and Julia. Caudwell's last work, The Sibyl in Her Grave, continues the intoxicating blend of dry humor and genteel manners that marked her as a successor to Dorothy Sayers.
The sibyl of the title is the psychic counselor Isabella del Comino, who descends in a flurry of bad taste to the Sussex village of Parsons Haver. With an aviary of ravens, a frumpy niece, and a penchant for combining divinations and blackmail, her sudden death comes as a relief to the village's disgruntled inhabitants, including Julia's redoubtable Aunt Regina. Regina has enough to worry about: she and two friends pooled their resources and invested in equities--and made a killing. But now the tax man is demanding his share, and the money has already been spent. When she asks Julia for legal advice, Julia and her colleagues discover that both Regina's fiscal success and Isabella's death are connected to an insider-trading scandal brewing with Julia's biggest clients. Unraveling that connection, of course, is a task that falls to Hilary.
Hilary, who "labors always in the service of Scholarship," is a triumph of authorial ambiguity. After four novels, readers will be left wondering, apparently unto eternity, whether Professor Tamar is a man or a woman. Take it as a political statement if you will--or simply as another little mystery, courtesy of an author who reveled in the power of words to clarify, outline, elucidate, and obscure. --Kelly Flynn