Sarah Caudwell Critical Essays

Sarah Cockburn


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although the unspecified gender of Professor Hilary Tamar should not overshadow the wit and intellectual cogency of Sarah Caudwell’s detective novels, it is certainly the feature of her work that has garnered the most attention. This is, perhaps, because it lays bare crucial if often suppressed issues in the detective genre. Does the detective need a gender? In the traditional detective story, the detective is gendered but often sexless. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is obviously a man, and he often encourages young couples to marry and presides over marriages but is never personally involved in any union; that he has no perceptible love life is generally of little interest to his fans. He is free to remain the “mind” of the novel. If Hilary Tamar is, as some readers suspect, in fact, a woman, it is possible that Tamar is Caudwell’s way of indicating that male detectives such as Poirot appear to be professionally unconstrained by their gender identity and are free to work as almost disembodied intellects. Caudwell, who had criticized Christopher Isherwood’s partial portrait of her mother, Jean Ross, as the madcap flapper Sally Bowles in his Berlin stories, was aware of the potential narrative traps and scripts associated with women that would limit her protagonist’s personal identity.

Hilary Tamar was the first detective to be without a specified gender; this innovation was heightened by Tamar’s narration of the the four books in the series. Previous writers had featured female detectives with deliberately androgynous names and characters, such as American writer Marvin Kaye’s Hilary Quayle in the 1970’s, but Tamar was the first to be utterly genderless. Whereas the male hard-boiled writers of the 1930’s gave their detectives aggressively masculine personae in contradistinction to the traditional detective’s identity as genderless thinking machine, Caudwell emancipated her character entirely from characteristics determined by gender.

As with many names used for both men and women, the name Hilary was originally a largely male name; however, by the 1970’s it had become more frequently used as a name for women. Caudwell deliberately gave her protagonist an ambisexual name to direct readers playfully at an enigma whose permanent shrouding is not simply a gimmick but a conceptual question that keeps readers alert and guessing throughout the series. Intriguingly, however, Tamar is clearly a woman’s name, borne by two female characters in the Bible; it is also the name of a well-known river in the English shire of Cornwall.

The society Caudwell portrays might seem parochial, cloistered, and elitist at times, and some of its preoccupations might seem fey, but it is also of considerable appeal because its blend of intellect, camaraderie, and humane values represents the best of British civilization. What makes characters commendable in Caudwell’s universe is their charm, compassion, and curiosity, rather than blood descent or even meritocracy in the conventional sense. Jokes, conversation, and irreverence are the unifying chords of the ensemble of spirited young friends. The group...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)