On a holiday for “Art Lovers” in Venice, Julia Larwood demonstrates which art she loves most by seducing an angelically beautiful young man. To her colleagues back in London, who learn of her exploits from letters that she sends them daily, that move only confirms what they have always known—that her lust far exceeds her judgment. A scatterbrained barrister who lives perpetually in arrears to the tax man, despite her specialty in tax law, Julia possesses an unholy dread of agents from Inland Revenue. As it happens, her latest lover is just such an agent; she sleeps with him anyway. Soon afterward, police arrest her for the murder of this Adonis, having found his corpse in the very bed that she had shared with him. It then falls to her London friends to rescue her from the vagaries of Italian justice.
Overshadowing the tale, in a wholly appealing way, is the manner of its telling. It’s a throwback to the old-fashioned epistolary novel. Julia’s arch, elegant letters provide much of the narrative, and they spur arch, elegant badinage among her comrades back home, who are all (save one) lawyers at a firm in Lincoln’s Inn. These friends, for their part, are a throwback to the Bright Young Things who populated the early satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh. They take seriously nothing that is serious—not truth, or work, or death—and they obsess extravagantly over parochial desires and petty slights. Caudwell, however, replaces the narrow sexual mores of Waugh’s day with the polymorphously libidinous mood of a later time: Sex happens (a lot). Genders bend (but never break).
Beneath the bubbling comic surface, meanwhile, there lies a well-clued plot, deftly unraveled by the only non-barrister in the bunch, Hilary Tamar, an Oxford don of nonspecific gender who uses an obscure tenet of textual criticism to discern which of Julia’s fellow Art Lovers is actually a killer. Tamar also narrates the tale, as he (or she) would later narrate three sequel adventures.