RogerBW's Blog

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers 04 April 2018

1932 mystery, seventh of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane, having turned her post-acquittal notoriety into a boost to her writing career, is taking a walking-tour on the south-west coast of England when she discovers a corpse on the beach, still dripping blood.

It all gets hugely complicated in short order. There are no footprints leading to (or from) the body, and Harriet can't make much of an examination before everything is washed out to sea. Once an identification is made, it looks like suicide, or perhaps a political assassination (shades of A Man Lay Dead); there's someone who would clearly benefit by the death, but he has a solid alibi. Suspiciously good, perhaps. And of course Lord Peter turns up.

'Where did you come from?'

'From London — like a bird that hears the call of its mate.'

'I didn't—' began Harriet.

'I didn't mean you. I meant the corpse. But still, talking of mates, will you marry me?'

'Certainly not.'

'I thought not, but I felt I might as well ask the question. Did you say they had found the body?'

Yes, all right, his ongoing proposals of marriage might come over as a bit stalkerish; but it's abundantly clear to both of them that, if Harriet actually wanted him to go away, he would. Instead what we get here is not so much a flirtation as a polite negotiation: both of them are people who are determined to do things in their own way, and who will if they do get together have to compromise that to some extent. They may like each other, perhaps even a great deal, but that doesn't mean they could live together. As so very often in Sayers, passages serve multiple purposes and there are layers to unpack; a bit about Peter and Harriet may also be talking about an ageing woman starved of affection and the gigolo who's giving it to her, and how while this may seem horrid it can't really be called a bad thing; or indeed about how the relations between men and women are changing in general.

We also get several sections detailing Harriet's novels (and indeed how the conventions of the mystery novel clash with the practicality of crime-solving), which might come over as self-indulgence by Sayers but fit well as a change of pace from the serious deduction.

Not nearly so complicated and interesting a problem, for instance, as the central situation in The Fountain-Pen Mystery. In that absorbing mystery, the villain was at the moment engaged in committing a crime in Edinburgh, while constructing an ingenious alibi involving a steam-yacht, a wireless time-signal, five clocks and the change from summer to winter time.

Peter and Harriet investigate, together and apart, and come up with a likely suspect… and set out to break his excessively detailed alibi. The detailed timetables that to me were the downfall of Five Red Herrings become here just one element in the overall stew. The plot that's eventually uncovered seems remarkably detailed and complex, perhaps even rococo in the provisions it has for fallbacks when initial statements are broken, compared with the simplicity that would have been offered to the murderer by a simple fatal knife-fight ("these foreigners, you know") or robbery with violence; but Sayers plays fair, and the clues are there to be found. There's even a chapter where Lord Peter cracks a Playfair cypher on the basis of its asymmetries (an interesting foreshadowing of one of the flaws in Enigma); if you have no interest in cryptanalysis you may find this tedious, but for me it remains fascinating.

Yes, all right, perhaps a simpler plot would have lead to a cleaner and shorter story; but the intricacies are fascinating and great fun to explore, and this is a book for wallowing in more than rushing through.

'I wish to appear in my famous impersonation of the perfect Lounge Lizard – imitation très difficile.'

'Very good, my lord. I suggest the fawn-coloured suit we do not care for, with the autumn-leaf socks and our outsized amber cigarette-holder.'

'As you will, Bunter; as you will. We must stoop to conquer.'

Followed by Hangman's Holiday (short stories) and Murder Must Advertise.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:18pm on 04 April 2018

    Did I miss something? Why are you doing HAVE HIS CARCASS when you haven't done STRONG POISON? Or did you and my memory is going?

    Anyway this is one of my favourite Wimsey stories, what with the relationship between Harriet and Peter, the careful depiction of the layers of the English class system and the set pieces like the decipherment of the letter and the final reveal of the solution.

    The last of which inspired me so much that I tried to use it as the core of a murder mystery in my RUNEQUEST game... and it failed totally because my players turned to me and said:

    "Naq jung'f unrzbcuvyvn jura vg'f ng ubzr?"

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:35pm on 04 April 2018

    I reviewed Strong Poison in 2016, when the Past Offences blog was still doing its Crimes-of-the-Century months. I had some notion at the time of tackling the other Sayers in the context of their appropriate years, but Past Offences has now largely shut down, so I'm taking them in order.

    "All book reviews" at the bottom right of every blog page gets you to a list sorted by author.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:39pm on 04 April 2018

    Yes, I had forgotten: I even commented on that post.

    Still, it was two years ago and my brain has had a lot of beer at your quarterly barbeques since then so I'm blaming you Roger.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 11:59pm on 04 April 2018

    Fair's fair.

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