RogerBW's Blog

Busman's Honeymoon, Dorothy Sayers 26 May 2018

1937 mystery, eleventh and last of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are married at last… but at the house they've taken for their honeymoon, the owner is dead in the cellar with his head bashed in.

But, as Sayers subtitled it, this is a love story with detective interruptions. Where Gaudy Night was largely about Harriet working out the shape of marriage that she could accept, this is more about Peter and the shape he can accept. And so it's Harriet who has to make most of the running: she, after all, has had experience of living on supposedly equal terms with a partner, and he hasn't.

'Whatever marriage is, it isn't that.'

'Isn't what, Harriet?'

'Letting your affection corrupt your judgement. What kind of life could we have if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?'

He turned away again, and when he spoke, it was in a queerly shaken tone:

'My dear girl, most women would consider it a triumph.'

'I know, I've heard them.' Her own scorn lashed herself — the self she had only just seen. 'They boast of it — "My husband would do anything for me. . . ." It's degrading. No human being ought to have such power over another.'

'It's a very real power, Harriet.'

'Then,' she flung back passionately, 'we won't use it. If we disagree, we'll fight it out like gentlemen. We won't stand for matrimonial blackmail.'

But things begin with the wedding, related as diaries and letters from various parties, most significantly Peter's mother, though some other old friends also appear. I think this may be some of the best writing Sayers did, for all it's pure fan-service; it conveys the attitudes and feelings of everyone, while never becoming recitative. As when the Dean of Shrewsbury comments on the Duke:

Somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, I think he has a lurking suspicion that Brother Peter may have that little extra something he hasn't got himself, and that it might even be a good thing to have, if one didn't have to consider the County.

Soon enough it's off to Hertfordshire, evading the Press, and to the house that Harriet admired as a child when she lived nearby… which Peter has bought as their country place. The owner, who was supposed to be on site to let them in, has disappeared, and it soon becomes apparent that he had good reason to.

Thus the detective interruption begins. And here Sayers reinforces the point she's often made before, that the point of the puzzle is not the motive (which, in this case, everybody had) but the method.

'You can have no idea,' said Peter, irrelevantly, 'how refreshing it is to talk to somebody who has a grasp of method. The police are excellent fellows, but the only principle of detection they have really grasped is that wretched phrase, Cui bono? They will hare off after motive, which is a matter for psychologists. Juries are just the same. If they can see a motive they tend to convict, however often the judge may tell them that there's no need to prove motive, and that motive by itself will never make a case. You've got to show how the thing was done, and then, if you like, bring in motive to back up your proof. If a thing could only have been done one way, and if only one person could have done it that way, then you've got your criminal, motive or no motive. There's How, When, Where, Why and Who — and when you've got How, you've got Who. Thus spake Zarathustra.'

'I seem to have married my only intelligent reader. That's the way you construct it from the other end, of course. Artistically, it's absolutely right.'

Not that the method is particularly complicated; Sherlock Holmes would have seen it in minutes, and delays in resolution are simply because things are not observed. Matters are much complicated by blocked chimneys, and soot covering the crime scene before it's even known that there has been a crime; and by a statement from one of the witnesses that's plainly impossible. But most of what goes on is talking with people, and bits of the actual honeymoon whenever the couple can get away. Though when the owner's creditors turn up to collect the furniture it's clear that things are not really tenable.

In all it's a solid piece, but definitely not one for the pure detective puzzler.

'My dear,' said Harriet, 'Miss Twitterton will think we are both quite mad; and Mr Puffett knows it already.'

'Oh, no, me lady,' said Mr Puffett. 'Not mad. Only 'appy. I knows the feeling.'

'As man to man, Puffett,' said the bridegroom, 'I thank you for those kind and sympathetic words. Where, by the way, did you go for your honeymoon?'

' 'Erne Bay, me lord,' replied Mr Puffett.

'Good God, yes! Where George Joseph Smith murdered his first Bride-in-the-Bath. We never thought of that! Harriet—'

'Monster,' said Harriet, 'do your worst! There are only hip-baths here.'

The book ends with a sequence that several previous books have hinted at, but not shown, now changed at last: Wimsey the night before the execution, unable to sleep, but this time able to come to Harriet and share the hatred for what he's had to do and the further damage it has done – for all it's prevented more damage by an unchecked murderer. Although nothing is declared here, there's at least a hint that he will now leave his hobby of detection. And indeed there are no more novels, just some short stories (notably the domestic Talboys).

Sayers had been working on another Wimsey novel, in fact, but her planned tale of three contrasting marriages was overtaken by the constitutional crisis of 1936, and she did not complete it. Alas, she did not destroy her notes before she died in 1957, and more alas given that situation, they were not published as they stood but turned into a full novel by Jill Paton Walsh; but the Thrones, Dominations that came out in 1998 is, perhaps inevitably, an historical novel, not a contemporary one.

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Previous in series: Gaudy Night | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: In the Teeth of the Evidence

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