“Well, really, don’t you know.” Wimsey screwed his monocle more firmly into his eye. “Really, old fellow, you make me feel all of a doo-dah, what?”
Do you have books you reach for when you’re feeling low, books you just know will cheer you up? For me, Have His Carcase is a sure thing when I need a reading tonic — even though (or is it, possibly, precisely because?) it is a completely ridiculous book.
Not everything about it is ridiculous, of course. Still, its plot is unlikely and convoluted enough to deserve the kind of scorn Raymond Chandler heaped on Busman’s Honeymoon:
There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business.
Busman’s Honeymoon (which, as I’ve said here at length, I both adore and kind of despise) is just one of many examples Chandler is using to debunk what today we might call the Golden Age puzzle mystery or cozy. He isn’t altogether wrong that this is a subgenre of crime fiction that puts clever conundrums ahead of either believable characters or social realism, never mind more probing philosophical themes. For that reason, they aren’t the kind of mysteries I like best. I hardly even read them. I’ve read maybe four Agatha Christie novels all the way through. They just don’t engage me. I’ve read quite a bit about them, as prep for my mystery fiction class, but my own taste runs more to Ian Rankin or Tana French or Arnaldur Indriðason.
I have always made an exception for Sayers, though — or, more accurately, for the Harriet Vane novels (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon). I also admire The NineTailors and find Murder Must Advertise fascinating, but the Harriet Quartet is special. Sayers herself said that once she’d invented Harriet, she needed to transform Peter from a caricature into a man worthy of her. He’s a long way off in Strong Poison; he’s fully evolved in Gaudy Night. He’s about half way there, as you’d expect from the sequence, in Have His Carcase. And that, for me, is where the joy of the novel lies: reading it is like tuning in half way through a championship to root for your favorite, who’s in the lead. Now, when I reread it, I skip, or at least skip around in, a lot of the development of the case itself, focusing in only on the scenes between Peter and Harriet.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do absolutely delight in sequences such as their search for clues along the beach (presented as a play, for no reason except why not, I suppose):
PETER: I just wanted to ask whether you’d given any further thought to that suggestion about marrying me.
HARRIET (sarcastically): I suppose you were thinking how delightful it would be to go through life like this together?
PETER: Well, not quite like this. Hand in hand was more my idea.
HARRIET: What is that in your hand?
PETER: A dead starfish.
HARRIET: Poor fish!
PETER: No ill-feeling, I trust.
HARRIET: Oh, dear no.
And it is fascinating to watch Sayers build layers into their relationship in order to move it out of the awkward spot she’d started it in in Strong Poison. By the end of the novel they are speaking quite differently to each other than they were at the beginning. All of that is great (and so much more interesting, to me at least, than the timetables and tides and encrypted letters on which the actual murder mystery turns). It’s not just Harriet with Peter that’s such a happy feature of the novel, though. Peter shows up in the book, but from the very beginning it is Harriet’s story overall. So we’re always approaching both the case and the relationship from her perspective, with a focus on what events mean to her. The novel even opens with one of the great literary declarations of female independence:
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.
Fond as I am of Lord Peter, I am always just a bit sorry, on every reread, when Harriet’s walking tour is so rudely interrupted by Paul Alexis’s body, so that instead of being a novel about a happy, self-sufficient career woman on a well-earned solo vacation, Have His Carcase gets coopted by both murder and romance.
But then I come around, because the two of them are so much crackling, prickly fun together, and I admire Sayers so much for fighting with the conventions of romantic stories and making both her hero and her heroine wrestle with them too, until by the end of Gaudy Night they have achieved the miraculous: love with neither subordination or compromise. That could never happen without the process ongoing in Have His Carcase, by which the Lord Peter who really is an aristocratic stock figure becomes one who plays that role with theatrical flourish. It makes me feel all of a doo-dah, what? 🙂 Just writing about it cheers me up all over again.