RogerBW's Blog

Hangman's Holiday, Dorothy Sayers 10 April 2018

1933 collection of twelve short mystery stories, some involving Lord Peter Wimsey.

This is an oddly patchy book, and it's not helped by its arrangement: the four Wimsey stories come first, then the six Montague Egg stories which are somewhat weaker, and finally the stand-alones. For me at least this induces a sense of decline as the book progresses.

The Image in the Mirror has a man who believes he went a bit mad during the War, and is now committing crimes without his conscious knowledge… but the details of his delusion suggest an alternative explanation. It's fairly straightforward but enjoyable.

The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey is to my mind the best of this batch: in very rural Basque country, the "magician" and his demon-ridden wife live in seclusion, but things are not even slightly as they appear. It's perhaps a little heavy on the stock foreign yokels, but the core is a solid piece of deduction of a particularly perverse crime.

The Queen's Square is a house-party murder in the traditional style, but comes over as perhaps a bit superficial; there's too much going on for the length, and characters who in a novel might have had their own stories are here merely as distraction. The central trick doesn't quite convince me.

The Necklace of Pearls similarly has to drop all the potentially interesting stories about people in order to wrap up the detection, a matter of a pearl necklace gone missing during a Christmas house-party.

The Poisoned Dow '08 introduces Sayers' other series protagonist, Montague Egg, a wines-and-spirits salesman unfortunately prone to stumbling over murder. It's an interesting conceit which can usefully throw him into a variety of criminal situations, but he's no Wimsey, he never seems to develop much personality, and his habit of rhyming aphorisms does not endear him to this reader. In this story, the master of the house was brought a sealed bottle of port, and was found dead of poison the next morning; it's obvious that that something's going on, but the plot seems excessively convoluted, and the motive doesn't really work for me.

Sleuths on the Scent is a scene of travellers at an inn, where Egg tricks a murderer into betraying himself. It might work well as a play.

Murder in the Morning has Egg turning up just after his potential customer has been killed, and a complex alibi plot which, alas, relies on the reader's knowledge of a particular practice of garages which has long since vanished. Even to describe it would be to give away the trick.

One Too Many is even more coincidental than most of the Egg stories, with a crooked businessman vanishing off a train on which Egg happens to be travelling. Shades of The Five Red Herrings with attention to the mechanics of ticket-collection.

Murder at Pentecost has an Oxford professor bludgeoned to death and an unfortunate lack of suspects, and a plot idea that Margery Allingham would recycle with modifications soon afterwards. It's surprisingly slight.

Maher-shalal-hashbaz, a tale of a cat, makes itself rather enjoyable by putting its criminal plot in the background; the inexplicable events that provide the clues are the main business, and everything else is reconstruction.

The Man Who Knew How is the first of the two stand-alone tales without series characters, and it's really more of a twist story than a mystery. It does have a fine introductory dig at some detective stories:

Pender wrenched himself back to his book with a determination to concentrate upon the problem of the minister murdered in the library. But the story was of the academic kind that crowds all its exciting incidents into the first chapter, and proceeds thereafter by a long series of deductions to a scientific solution in the last. The thin thread of interest, spun precariously upon the wheel of Pender's reasoning brain, had been snapped. Twice he had to turn back to verify points that he had missed in reading. Then he became aware that his eyes had followed three closely argued pages without conveying anything whatever to his intelligence.

but after that it's rather more cruel than enjoyable.

The same is true for me of The Fountain Plays, which has a mystery plot but inverts it by showing us the culprit. As with The Man Who Knew How, the point is the people, but again as in that story, there's a feeling of horrible remorselessness as things grind down to the worst possible outcome.

So the ending of the book is a bit of a let-down, and a very different tone from the Wimsey and Egg stories (which manage to be breezy even while they're dealing with horrors). Not really my sort of thing, though the writing is always very good.

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