"'I don't believe Shakespeare told Julia to try fainting,' said Cantrip. 'He's dead.'
'She is referring,' said Selena, 'to his early poem "Venus and Adonis". Julia read it at an impressionable age and has since regarded it as a sort of seduction manual.'
'It is a most indelicate work,' said Ragwort. 'Not at all suitable reading for a young girl.'
'It's hardly Julia's fault,' said Selena. 'They told her at school that Shakespeare was educational.'
'As I recall,' I said, 'the methods employed by the goddess in her pursuit of Adonis, though forceful, achieved only limited success. Doesn't Julia find that discouraging?'"
- the members of the Nursery, discussing with Hilary Tamar Julia's latest letter, herein
There you have a sample of the speech and manner of four of the principal performers of Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar mysteries: honey-tongued Selena, who could get someone out of a deal with the devil on a good day; the incorruptably prudish Ragwort; legal scholar and Oxford don Hilary Tamar; and Cantrip, the token Cambridge graduate among a flock of Oxonians. It always tickles me that while the others dazzle us with floods of sophisticated wit, Cantrip sounds like an escapee from P.G. Wodehouse who might hang out with Bertie Wooster. Cantrip also has the least reputable skills, such as lockpicking, and associates, such as his connections at the newspaper that uses him to check for potentially libelous material before going to press.
As the story opens, the four junior barristers of 62 New Square, unable to take their own holidays thanks to the tyranny of their clerk, are whiling away their days of toil by looking forward to two things: holiday letters from their colleague Julia Larwood, and coffee and gossip sessions with their old mentor Hilary Tamar, at which the letters are shared around. The most they expect are cheerful travelogues of an Art Lovers' Holiday from their hapless friend who hopes for more Love than Art from her holiday, having spent a very stressful few months doing battle with the tax authorities. Her friends, for their part, hope that putting Julia on a packaged tour will compensate for letting their accident-prone friend out without a keeper.
At first, all is pretty much as expected: Julia reports a series of very funny mishaps and minor disasters in her encounters with her fellow Art Lovers, beginning with attracting the pursuit of the Major (old ex-army bore, now selling shady antiques and art objects), failing to attract the lovely Ned (already in a relationship with rising sculptor Kenneth Dunfermline), and accidentally giving the impression of attempting to attract her friendly shopping companion Marylou (whose husband broke a promise not to make it a working vacation, then picked an awkward moment to walk in on them). The last member of the group, wealthy art gallery owner Eleanor Frostfield, far from involving any attraction to/from anyone, distributes insults and starts fights with all the generosity she fails to show financially to her artists - or to fellow travellers who have to pick up the check at a cafe. Her holiday, naturally, is being put down as a business expense.
Speaking of working holidays, several characters turn out to have them. Timothy Shepherd - another member of the Nursery - amid many grumblings from his colleagues is sent to Venice to reason with a client who needs to take steps to avoid paying heavy taxes on an inheritance. Several of the Art Lovers are professionally involved with the Tiverton Collection forming part of the client's estate, though whether as legitimate valuators, potential buyers, or hopeful sneak thieves is an open question.
As Ragwort later remarks, if anyone were to be murdered, it's surprising that nobody murdered Julia. :) Fortunately, Cantrip at his part-time newspaper consulting job intercepts a report that she's a suspect within hours of the murder, he and the rest of Julia's friends need waste no time getting to work on solving the problem.
The story has very polished language, helped along by the fact that it alternates between long chatty letters and conversations among the recipients analyzing them both for clues leading to the actual culprit and for any plausible-sounding line of defence that might hold up in court. I highly recommend listening to the unabridged recording read by Eva Haddon, who handles all the characters superbly, from Julia's perpetual inability to understand what's going on if it doesn't involve the Taxes Acts to Hilary Tamar's discourses on the usefulness of scholarship in identifying and sorting out discrepancies in evidence.