Friday, September 9, 2011

Death and Taxes

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here
I am a tax attorney. Yeah, I know. In the Pandora's box of all the frightening and horrible things in the world, the subject of TAX takes up a lot of room. For me, too, at one time. I've always preferred to get unpleasant things out of the way as soon as possible, so when I went to law school, after being an academic librarian for several years, I took Tax I as soon as I could. And I loved it. It was like joining a secret society with its own book of potions, spells and incantations. It had an internal logic and language that was almost mesmerizing. As Michael Cantrip writes in a telex to Julia Larwood in Sarah Caudwell's The Sirens Sang of Murder:
"I say, Larwood, is this tax-planning business really as exciting as these Daffodil characters seem to think or do they just make believe it is to make life more interesting? I mean, if I'd known it was all about codes and secret documents and biffing chaps in false beards, I wouldn't have minded going in for it myself."
Sarah Caudwell is one of my all-time favorite mystery writers and she was a tax lawyer. Sadly, she died young, though I don't think tax had anything to do with it. But before she left us, she did the unthinkable: she made a tax lawyer a featured and lovable character in a series of mysteries: Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl In Her Grave. True, her Julia Larwood character is probably about as far away from most people's conception of tax lawyers as you can get.

Her appearance in The Sirens Sang of Murder gives us a glimpse of what Julia is like: "Her hair was no more than usually disheveled, her clothing no more than normally disordered, and she stumbled, in her progress towards the bar, over no more than the customary number of briefcases." Julia is charming, a sparkling conversationalist and more than a little good-looking but, as Hilary Tamar, Sarah Caudwell's protagonist observes:
"Poor Julia's inability to understand what is happening, or why, in the world about her, her incompetence to learn even the simplest of the practical skills required for survival—these must have made it evident, even in childhood, that she would never be able to cope unaided with the full responsibilities of adult life."
Julia is always going in for mad, money-making schemes, like her collaboration with her friend and fellow young lawyer, Michael Cantrip, to write "a novel, based on their experiences of life at the Bar and to be entitled Chancery!, which they confidently expected to earn them wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and so free them from the tyranny of their respective Clerks." (The Sirens Sang of Murder) And she needs that money. In Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Hilary Tamar explains that the Inland Revenue has ruined Julia:
"Julia's unhappy relationship with the Inland Revenue was due to her omission, during four years of modestly successful practice at the Bar, to pay any income tax. The truth is, I think, that she did not, in her heart of hearts, really believe in income tax. It was a subject which she had studied for examinations and on which she had thereafter advised a number of clients: she naturally did not suppose, in these circumstances, that it had anything to do with real life."
Unsurprisingly, in Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Julia becomes Suspect Number One in the murder of an Inland Revenue agent she meets when she is on an Art Lovers' tour of Venice. Now, if that revenue agent had been Richard Yancey, maybe he wouldn't have ended up dead. Yancey, the author of the highly entertaining Teddy Ruzak (the Highly Effective Detective) mystery series, also wrote Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man’s Tour of Duty Inside the IRS. The book is a lightly fictionalized picaresque memoir of Yancey's 12 years as a tax collector or "Revenue Officer."

This isn't a mystery, but it is a detective story. Yancey is a classic antihero-type, on a lonely quest to track down the bad guys; in this case, tax delinquents, especially tax protesters. As Sam Spade occasionally found of those who hired him, Yancey's employer is a powerful and harshly demanding master. Culpepper, Yancey's Clint Eastwoodesque trainer tells him that "you could drive down any street in America on any given day, and I guarantee you over half of the businesses you pass would have tax trouble. . . . Maybe that's because the system's too complex or people are stupid or a combination of both, I really don't care. The point is, that's why we're here." When Yancey replies: "To help them," Culpepper sets him straight: "Don't be ridiculous. Oh, maybe that happens, like a happy accident, but helping people isn't your job, Yancey. You want to help people, become a social worker. Our job is to feed the beast." That is, the U.S. Treasury.

Scared witless and confused by his job, Yancey spends his days bombing down back roads with Culpepper and confronting tax delinquents in trailer parks, dental offices and strip malls, poring over legal records to try to find assets he can seize, and engaging in jungle warfare against an assortment of malcontents, misfits and backstabbers back at the office. Profoundly ambivalent about his job at the start, his personal life is in a shambles and he decides to devote his energies into becoming the best possible Revenue Officer.

By the end of his "tour of duty," Yancey is changed in every way. He loses almost all of his previous connections, including a fiancée and, after an extended period of insomnia and poor eating habits, slowly rebuilds his life. From a self-described pencil neck, he works out every night until he transforms himself into a fine physical specimen. He even manages to find love in the IRS. Seriously.

Best of all, for our sake, Yancey leaves the IRS and becomes a mystery writer. He doesn't write about the IRS, though. This is not surprising, considering that although he is quoted as saying how much he values his experience there and believes in the need for all citizens to pay their taxes, he was nervous about his own taxes after writing Confessions of a Tax Collector, because of what he calls the IRS's known vindictive streak. But if you've ever read a Teddy Ruzak book, you have to think that some of Yancey's experiences during his tour of duty came in handy. Teddy has a talent for absurd and labrythine thinking, as well as a way of annoying suspects and witnesses so much that they end up telling him a lot more than they'd intended just to get rid of him.

I doubt there is anything I could write to give anyone a benevolent feeling about taxes, but I hope I can persuade some of you to give Sarah Caudwell and Richard Yancey a try.


  1. Well you managed to make taxes amusing, if never palatable. Nice job!

  2. Peggie, thank you. I sure can't ask for more than that.

  3. Sarah Caudwell was a favorite of mine and I was so sorry when the mysteries stopped appearing. I like professional women protagonists (in fact, I write one) because they have expertise in something other than detecting or cooking or knitting.

    nice post, nice blog, recommended by another good crime writer, Julie Smith.

  4. Hi Susan and thanks for coming by. I haven't read your Murder in the Abstract, but a murder in the art world sounds interesting. (I read Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones series in the '80s. Does that count for anything?)

    Is it true you live in Marin County? My husband and I lived in Mill Valley from 1988-2003.

  5. Oh Sister,Sister,
    tax lawyers are,indeed,not generally thought of
    as strong contenders for the title of Miss or
    Mr.Congeniality, but you sound such a civilized
    and agreeable person that maybe they've just
    gotten a bad rap.You certainly make a persuasive
    case for Sarah Caudwell.I've noted down her name
    to be tried after I've made some inroads into my
    towering To Be Read pile.
    The trouble is that my mental image of a lawyer
    is colored by a childhood spent watching Perry
    Mason on black-and-white TV.

    A packed courtroom. Raymond Burr points an
    accusing finger at the defendant in the witness
    box. "Is it not the truth, Mrs.Golightly, that
    these Hawaiian birth certificates are forgeries
    and that the twelve dependents for which you
    are claiming deductions were,in fact,born in
    KENYA, and are thus not entitled to any benefits
    from the United States?"
    Mrs.Golightly is led from the courtroom,
    snarling defiantly. "Yes,it was me. I did it.
    And I'm glad, I tell you. Glad."

    Still,I suppose your work isn't so exciting. I
    look forward to more book recommendations from
    you, and am sending you, in appreciation, a
    poster, for your cell wall, of an icon of the
    Blessed Librarius,the patron saint of readers.

    Jonas Oldacre

  6. Jonas Oldacre. Interesting choice of monikers. Are you a Sherlock Holmes aficionado? Or do you just like villains?

    You're right; tax law is not exciting. Which is why I'm mostly retired at this point and loving it. Much more time to read.

    My mother adored watching Perry Mason, so that colored my view of the legal profession too. But I never saw myself in a courtroom. In fact, the only time I've ever been in a courtroom was during voir dire when I was on jury duty. When the defense attorney found out I was a tax lawyer, he jumped up, out of turn, because he was in such a hurry to have me excused. Where's the love? But hey, at least I can do my own taxes and I'm guessing he couldn't.

    I hope you can get to Sarah Caudwell soon. Her books are wonderful and mostly not about tax.

    Thanks for the poster, I'll put it up right between a couple of my other faves, Saint Christina the Astonishing (who flew out of her coffin at her funeral service) and Saint Jeanne Elisabeth Bichier des Ages (who studied law and accounting, but was flightless).

  7. Jonas, in addition to being a scoundrel of the sneakiest variety, you also engaged in some rather iffy financial transactions, didn't you? It's unfortunate for you that Sherlock Holmes was on hand to unmask you in "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder."

    Putting your regrettable personality aside, I'm thrilled to meet another Sherlock Holmes AND Perry Mason fan. I own the Holmes canon, and I was such a Perry Mason fan as a kid that the availability of the TV re-runs factored into my decision about where to attend college. I collect the old paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner. (Someone who has an interest in trying one could read The Case of the Crooked Candle or The Case of the Careless Kitten. In general, the Mason books from the 1940s and '50s are better than those from the '60s (there are some exceptions) and '70s (on the whole, not good).

    You'd enjoy Sarah Caudwell, I'm sure. Her books read a bit as if Jane Austen had turned her hand to the mystery genre. They are very witty and civilized and appealing in every way. She's one of my favorite authors.

  8. Georgette,
    I was not "unmasked". Both Holmes and Lestrade
    were strict anti-constructionists.(That is,they
    had a deep hostility towards the constuction
    industry). As a builder, I was FRAMED!


  9. Jonas, you have been working too hard at your building trade for too many years and have developed frameaphobia as a result. I smell idée fixearoma emanating from your postings. You like Perry Mason; you've become friends with the terrific short-story and thriller writer Simon Wood (up for an Anthony this year). Fond of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer? Read books featuring sleuths Ace, Andy, Gus, Hollis, Jack, and Kate CARPENTER?

    I was wrong to encourage you to read Sarah Caudwell. For you, Daniel Mainwaring writing as Geoffrey Homes, BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH.

    Now, you must excuse me, my dear Jonas. I need to polish my nails.

  10. Georgette,
    I've spent all day trying to think of a suitable
    response to your post, sitting in a cafe muttering to myself, attracting curious stairs from the other customers, concentrating so hard that I developed a tic in one eye. It was no use. You completely floored me. You should take steps to utilize your talent for language. Maybe you could find another first-time writer and pool your ideas. I'm sure anything you wrote
    would be a best cellar.


  11. Jonas, you're laying it on quite thick. I'm too busy just now; we're trying to cement Read Me Deadly's reputation as a fun place to visit, but perhaps in the future. Why don't you pave the way for me? You're very talented, and surely you can find room in your schedule for such an endeavor. I predict your first novel will be a barnburner, with sales through the roof. And if this doesn't happen, you can always ply, ply, plywood again.

  12. Georgette,and any other witnesses, material
    or otherwise,
    this is COMPLETELY irrelevant to the post
    we are discussing, except for the last phrase
    of your comment above. My only excuse, a
    feeble one, is that I haven't yet worked
    out how I can contribute to READ ME DEADLY
    unless by making comments on other people's
    posts or comments. Give me time, I'll get
    there. Meanwhile...

    A young woman of German-American parentage
    opened a diner in Ohio. Fried chicken,
    fried ham, fried eggs, fried bread, all
    served with plenty of french fries. The
    diner was a big success, and after a few
    years she was able to take a break and
    visit Germany in search of her heritage.
    While there she was knocked out by the
    variety and quality of the sausages in
    German cuisine. She arranged for a big
    shipment of them to be sent to her in
    the U.S., and re-opened the diner with a
    completely different menu. Sauerkraut,
    potatoes, and lots and lots of German
    sausages, grilled or boiled. The new
    restaurant was a resounding flop. The old
    customers just did not appreciate the new
    menu, so she regretfully went back to the
    old one, on the principle that....
    if at wurst you don't succeed, fry, fry,
    fry again.