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.