(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the heyday of the lighthearted, cerebral mystery is often seen as the 1920’s and 1930’s, Sarah Caudwell reanimated this subgenre for the modern era. Her work’s playfulness and zany high spirits, its acute observation of human foibles, and its intellectual trenchancy give it a distinct tone treasured by many readers. Although critics have sometimes found Caudwell overly derivative of Golden Age mystery novelists such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Michael Innes, her mystery plots depend far less on puzzles and more on a lawyerlike detection of a loophole that her detective often perceives just in time to apprehend the criminal. In another departure from Golden Age mysteries, Caudwell took the puzzle story and plunged it into the milieu of supersonic airlines, the European Union, faxes, and feminism; she showed readers that the traditional detective story is not just an anachronism but, in the right hands, can be a vital contemporary form.

Caudwell also contributed much more rigor to a traditional aspect of the murder mystery: inheritance law and the intricacies of who gets the money after a person unexpectedly expires. As a tax lawyer, Caudwell was aware of loopholes and eccentricities in the British tax code that would supply a motive for murder when none was readily apparent. Caudwell’s legal knowledge permeates the entire series and provides a realism that contributes to her novels’ characteristic flavor.

Above all, however, Caudwell is best known for introducing a detective with no definite gender; this intriguing aspect allows Caudwell to move beyond the narrative of mystery into the mystery of the identity of the person who solves them.

Sarah Caudwell Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dubose, Martha Hailey, with Margaret Caldwell Thomas. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. Contains a brief entry on her life and works.

Dyer, Lucinda. “Is She or Isn’t He?” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 15 (April 9, 2001): 38. A capsule summary of the questions surrounding Hilary Tamar’s gender identity.

Edwards, Martin. “Sarah Caudwell: A Most Ingenious Legal Mind.” Mystery Scene 87 (2004): 50-51. Informal, enthusiastic appreciation of Caudwell’s mysteries and the contributions the author’s legal background made to them.

Flanders, Laura. “Crossing the Bar.” Women’s Review of Books 17, no. 7 (April, 2000): 5-6. Caudwell’s niece, a prominent American radio personality, gives a personal tribute to her aunt that also contains some trenchant reflections on her work.

Kendrick, Walter. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 81, no. 4 (October, 1993): 131-133. Kendrick, the late scholar and regular reviewer for The Village Voice, contends that the nongendered narrator of Jeannette Winterson’s Written on the Body takes Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar as a significant precedent.

King, Nina. “Wit and Polish.” Washington Post Book World, July 23, 2000, p. X04. The well-known book critic commends Caudwell’s last novel in the course of an obituary tribute and identifies what American readers valued in Caudwell’s fiction.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory, ed. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Contains a biocritical essay about Caudwell.

May, Radhika. “Murder Most Oxford.” Contemporary Review 277, no. 1617 (October, 2000): 232-239. In a survey of detective fiction set in Oxford from the era of Dorothy L. Sayers to the year 2000, May spotlights Caudwell’s contribution.

Russell, Sharon A. “Gender and Voice in the Novels of Sarah Caudwell.” In Women Times Three: Writers, Detectives, Readers, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univeristy Popular Press, 1995. By far the most academic and theoretical treatment of Caudwell.