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Pencil sketch of Sarah Caudwell
27 May 1939|
|Died||28 January 2000
|Education||University of Aberdeen
St Anne's College, Oxford
|Notable awards||1990 Anthony Award|
|Relatives||Claud Cockburn, father
Jean Ross, mother
She is best known for a series of four murder stories written between 1980 and 1999, centred on the lives of a group of young barristers practicing in Lincoln’s Inn and narrated by a Hilary Tamar, a Professor of Medieval Law (sex unknown), who also acts as detective.
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Sarah Cockburn was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the daughter of Claud Cockburn, the left wing journalist, and his second wife Jean Ross, who was partly the model for Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles of Cabaret fame. Caudwell's three half-brothers Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn are also journalists. She was the half-sister-in-law of Leslie Cockburn and of Michael Flanders. Journalists Laura Flanders and Stephanie Flanders, and actress Olivia Wilde are her half-nieces.
She graduated in Classics from the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, and read Law at St Anne's College, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire. On coming down from Oxford she lectured on Law at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Having been called to the Bar, she practised as a Barrister for several years in Lincoln’s Inn, where she was admitted to and was entitled to practise in 1966, and later specialised in international tax planning at Lloyds Bank. It was at this time that she started to write.
She was one of the first two female students to join the Oxford Union, having, legend has it, dressed up in men's clothes to protest against its male-only membership policy. She was thus one of the first female students to speak in the Oxford Union's Debating Chamber.
She joined the Chancery bar in 1966 and worked in property and tax law. When she joined Lloyds Bank, she became a senior executive in the trust department. Fellow barrister John Tackebury praised her accomplishments at the bar: "As a woman, she had to have had a first-class mind to join the Chancery bar, to have built up a successful practice and to have become a senior executive at Lloyds, All these institutions were highly resistant to women at a senior level, and certainly to a woman who smoked a pipe."
Personal life and death
She was a lifelong pipe-smoker, and inveterate crossword solver, reaching the final of The Times Crossword Competition more than once. For many years, she lived in Barnes, London, with her mother and aunt. She died of cancer in January 2000 in London, England.
The Hilary Tamar Series
This series of four books, described as "legal whodunits", were written over a period of twenty years. Their primary setting is the top floor of 62 New Square at Lincoln's Inn, where four young barristers have their chambers: Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Selena Jardine and Timothy Shepherd. While the last named only appears sporadically, taxes barrister Julia Larwood, who works in the adjacent premises, is a regular visitor and is in effect the fourth member of the group. These characters are in some ways thinly drawn, never communicating in anything other than an ironic tone, so that even when they are in deadly danger the atmosphere remains uniformly light-hearted. Even though the characters are sexually active, their cheerful friendship is sometimes reminiscent of the chummy gangs encountered in juvenile fiction.
Acting as a kind of parent to the group is the first-person narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar. Professor Tamar, a former tutor of Timothy Shepherd, also acts as the main detective, although other characters make contributions to the eventual solutions. Professor Tamar is frequently physically removed from the action and is kept informed by a series of improbably long letters and telexes. This distancing is amplified by Caudwell’s strategy of not specifying Tamar's sex and never specifying the reason for the strong bond which the character enjoys with the young advocates, notwithstanding the lack of any point of contact in terms of age, temperament, occupation or enthusiasms.
The books have a self-consciously literary style, including many references to the classics and other subjects of higher learning. One running joke is the narrator's absurd elitism, with lower orders such as Solicitors, Accountants, Tax Inspectors and Cambridge graduates being frequent targets of barbed comments; one character is disparaged as it is suspected he had to work in order to earn a first-class degree.
The plots are intricate, carefully realised, and strongly tied to the locations chosen, these being Venice, Corfu, Sark and an English village. The author’s expertise in tax law is frequently brought into play, inheritance law being relevant to financial motives for murder. She was particularly popular among other legal professionals, including American jurist Robert Bork, who was once quoted as saying, "In my opinion, there can't be too many Sarah Caudwell novels".
She also wrote a play, The Madman’s Advocate, which was given a rehearsed reading in Nottingham in 1995: a study of Daniel M'Naghten's attempt in 1843 to assassinate Sir Robert Peel and the resulting establishment of the M'Naghten Rule as a legal standard for defining the sanity of a defendant in law.
Hilary Tamar Stories
- Thus Was Adonis Murdered (1981)
- The Shortest Way to Hades (1985)
- The Sirens Sang of Murder (1989)
- The Sibyl in Her Grave (2000)
- The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime (1991) (with Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman and Jack Hitt)
Contributions to anthologies
- 2nd Culprit: An Annual of Crime Stories (1994)
- 3rd Culprit (1994)
- Malice Domestic 6 (1997)
- The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (2000)
- Women Before the Bench (2001)
- The Mammoth Book of Comic Crime (2002)
- Stasio, Marilyn (6 February 2000). "Sarah Caudwell, 60, Lawyer And Author of Mystery Novels". New York Times. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- Edwards, Martin. "Sarah Caudwell". martinedwardsbooks.com. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- "Bouchercon World Mystery Convention : Anthony Awards Nominees". Bouchercon.info. 2 October 2003. Retrieved 5 March 2012.
St James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Fourth Edition. Jay Pederson, editor. 1996. "Sarah Caudwell" p162-3.