Golden Age Detective Fiction: Nicholas Blake’s “The Beast Must Die” & Dorothy Sayers’ “Have His Carcase”

It’s summer!  Have you got your lawn chairs out?  Is your umbrella positioned to shade your table?  Do you plan to spend the next few months anointed with bug spray so you can sit outside whenever the mood takes you?

All right, I’m reading nothing but genre fiction for three months!  Well, three days, okay?  And today I’m writing a  straightahead post on two superb Golden Age Detective novels, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die and Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. 

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die.  The poet Cecil Day-Lewis, whose excellent translations of Virgil still reside on our bookshelf, wrote 19 mysteries under the nom de plume Nicholas Blake.   I am a fan of Blake’s witty amateur sleuth /poet, Nigel Strangeways, who can hold his own with Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn.  Lo and behold! I recently discovered an e-book edition of  Blake’s  1938 novel, The Beast Must Die (Ipso Books).  It was new to me, but according to The Telegraph it is one of his most famous books.

The Beast Must Die is structurally tricky, like walking through a house of mirrors.   The  first part takes the form of a journal written by Frank Cairnes, a writer of popular mysteries under the pseudonym Felix Lane.

It begins:

I am going to kill a man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know where he lives, I have no idea what he looks like. But I am going to find him and kill him.

C. Day-Lewis

Why is Frank murderous?  No, it’s not research for a new novel.  His son was killed in a hit-and-run accident, and when the police fail to find the killer, Frank utilizes the skills of his fictional sleuths to figure  out the trajectory of the car when it left the scene.  And he  discovers that someone saw  a movie starlet, Lena Lawson, in the front seat with the driver.

And then the plot gets much, much more convoluted.  He tracks down Lena and woos her to get information, but uses his nom de plume, Felix, so she will not realize he is the father of the victim.  And when he learns the driver is Lena’s brother-in-law and former lover, George Rattery, a garage owner, he wangles an invitation for a weekend visit to the Ratterys.  George is a bully, whose wife and son are nervous wrecks. He is odious, which makes the murder plot more viable from the point of view of a man with a conscience.

Nigel, the poet-sleuth, finally appears almost halfway through the novel, and it is as if there is a modernist confrontation between the consciousness of C. Day-Lewis and his other self, the mystery writer, Nicholas Blake.  Exhausted and ill from solving a different crime, Nigel  tells his wife, Georgia, an explorer, that he is “having a tête-à-tête with my unconscious” and composing ” a general knowledge paper.”  When Georgia reads the questions, she tells him it must be a terrible thing to have a classical education.  He agrees.  Among the nonsensical but learned questions are:

  1. How many fine words does it take to butter no parsnips?
  2. Who or what was “the dry wet-nurse of lions”?
  3. In what sense were the Nine Worthies?
  4. What do you know about Mr Bangelstein? What do you not know about Bion and Borysthenite?

Lovely to read, even if you haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about.  And the questions to Frank/Felix are even more acute.

But is the journal fiction? Who done it?

If you liked Agatha Christie’s The  Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you will undoubtedly enjoy The Beast Must Die.  

Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase.  Perhaps Have His Carcase is the best of Sayers’ four Harriet Vane books, or perhaps it only seems that way because I have read her most famous one, Gaudy Night, a million times!

Sayers, a Dante scholar, is my favorite Golden Age mystery writer.  And Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’ brilliant but affectedly foppish amateur sleuth, is one of the most vivid heroes of any mystery series. In Strong Poison, he cleared mystery writer Harriet Vane of murdering her loverand fell in unrequited love with her.  Although it’s difficult to know why she didn’t fall in love with Wimsey, we  see that she needs a breather after being a suspected murderess and escaping the death penalty.

In Have His Carcase, Harriet takes a solitary walking trip, happy to get away from everyone and everything.  But then she discovers the body of a murdered man on a deserted beach, and though she takes pictures, the tide has washed him away by the time she reaches a phone and calls the police.  Peter shows up, and he and Harriet, with the police, investigate the murder of  Paul Alexis, a professional ballroom dancer at a hotel,  amidst a whirl of other professional dancers  (it’s almost like Dancing with the Stars), itinerant barbers with sharp knives, and ostensible Russian spies. But how do you investigate a crime when there isn’t a body?

It takes time.

Good Things in Threes: Edward Carey’s Heap House, Colette’s The Innocent Libertine, & Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

Good things come in threes!  I thoroughly enjoyed three feather-light classics this month, Edward Carey’s Heap House, Colette’s The Innocent Libertine, and Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

Edward Carey HEAP-HOUSE1. While reading Heap House, written and illustrated by Edward Carey, I thought, “It’s ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ meets Edward Gorey and Mervyn Peake!” This eerie fantasy, the first of the Iremonger trilogy, is set in an alternate nineteenth century. The extended family of the Iremongers lives in a huge mansion, Heap House, built on “the heaps,” i.e., hills of trash and rubble collected from London.  Servants toil in the heaps, wearing gas masks and tied to human anchors as they salvage valuable objects.

Heap House is told in two alternating narratives.  The first narrator is 15-year-old Clod,  a  brilliant, sickly orphan with a special gift:  objects speak to him.  Each Iremonger is presented with  an object at birth:   Clod’s is a bath plug; his cousin Pinalippy has a doily; and an aunt a brass door handle.  The owners must carry their birth objects at all times.  When Clod enters a room, objects speak their names to him.  His bath plug says, “James Henry Hayward.’

Lucy Pennant, an orphan recently brought to live at Heap House, relates the story of  the servants downstairs.  After she arrives, the objects, ranging from utensils to furniture, start acting strangely. She meets Clod while cleaning the fireplaces upstairs and they share information and form an alliance.

I loved this book!  which was praised by Kelly Link and Eleanor Catton.  And it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.  (And I have two to go.)

Colette innocent libertine 1323302. Colette’s The Innocent Libertine. Colette explains in the preface that this slight novel was intended as a short story, but her first husband, Willy, saw the commercial value and insisted that she pad it.  Then she wrote a sequel. Later she welded the two stories into one novel, but fears “that this definitive edition itself fails to… reconcile me completely to the first aspects of my career as a novelist.”

It is charming but feather-light, not up to Colette’s usual standard.  In Part I, she introduces the heroine, Minne, a  schoolgirl who pores over sensational newspapers while she pretends to do schoolwork.  She is fascinated by a column called”Paris at Night”:  she loves the stories of a gang of brigands living in the boulevards of Paris. She thinks the gang is romantic:  she likes their names,Copper-nob, the Moth, the Viper, and Curly.  She fantasizes that a young man she has seen sleeping in the park is Curly.  When she sneaks out one night, she discovers the world is not like “Paris at Night.”

In Part 2, Minne is unhappily married to her handsome cousin, who had a crush on her as a teenager. She is unfulfilled and wonders what other women find in love.  Her ideas of sex and romance are as naive as her girlhood vision of the gangs of Paris.  Will she ever find love?

When you’ve read all of Colette, read this.

3. I’ve always wanted to join a stuffy club where men lounge in comfortable chairs and smoke cigars.  (Are women still barred?) In Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), the fifth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, the amateur detective hero, Wimsey, is at his wittiest and most dashing as he solves a puzzle plot full of red herrings and twists.

It opens at the club:   Captain George Fentiman, a shell-shocked, unemployed veteran of World War I, tells Wimsey that he would resort to crime if he could.

Wimsey gently, humorously reins in his friend, who is on the verge of a breakdown.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Wimsey lightly.  “Crime’s a skilled occupation, y’know.  Even a comparative imbecile like myself can play the giddy sleuth on the amateur Moriarty.  If you’re thinkin’ of puttin ‘ on a false moustache and lammin’ a millionaire, don’t do it…”

the unpleasantness at the bellona club sayers 192887Then George’s grandfather, General Fentiman, is found dead in the club’s library, in an advanced state of rigor mortis.  The time of death is important to quarreling heirs, because the general’s sister also died that morning:   if she died first,  her fortune belonged to the general, and would go to George and his brother, Robert.

Wimsey examines timetables, romps through Europe, and interviews artists (one of whom half jokingly proposes to him:  he sweetly refuses).

Really a great read!  One of Sayers’s best!

Dorothy Sayers’s Have His Carcase

Have His Carcase Dorothy Sayers 246231This is my year of rereading Dorothy Sayers.

I have always loved Sayers.  During my student days, after decoding the rants in dialect of the chorus in the Oresteia,  I would dash home from the library and curl up with my BBC-influenced leisure reading.  I was introduced to Sayers by the Lord Peter Wimsey TV series with Ian Carmichael.

(Isn’t it time for some Lord Peter Wimsey remakes?)

This year I have reread two of my favorites, Sayers’s masterpiece, Gaudy Night, an investigation of a poison pen at a women’s college, and The Nine Tailors, a mystery involving jewel theft and bell-ringing.

Sayers old penguin have-his-carcase-fc-e1291037992311And so I decided to try one I hadn’t read in decades, Have His Carcase.  It is a brilliant comedy about identity and disguise that ends with a powerful exposition of the waste of an innocent life by murderers who may or may not be called to justice.

First a few words about the main characters:  the hero of the series, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an Oxford-educated amateur sleuth who amuses us with witty banter while he dabbles in solving crimes.  He often seems sillier than he really is, in the affected style of a P. G. Wodehouse character. This novel also stars Harriet Vane, a mystery writer who was tried and acquitted of the murder of her lover.

Usually Lord Peter is too busy for a love interest, but in four of the novels, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Holiday, Sayerstraces the development of Lord Peter’s relationship with Harriet Vane.

Harriet does not return his love because she feels irritatingly obligated to him for finding the evidence that saved her life.  At the beginning of Have His Carcase, she blithely has evaded Lord Peter by taking a solitary walking tour.

This opening paragraph shows Sayers at her best.

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.

But life is never easy for Harriet.  On a deserted beach she finds the  corpse of a man whose throat has been cut.  She takes photographs because she is afraid the tide will wash it away.  (It does.)  It takes her hours to walk to a village store where there is a phone (after walking miles out of her way to farms that turn out not to have phones), and after reporting the crime to the police, she telephones her favorite journalist, knowing it will be good publicity for her next book.   And then Lord Peter comes immediately to help investigate (and also to save Harriet’s reputation, because again she looks like the murderer).   The police think the death is by suicide.

The victim turns out to be the Russian-born Paul Alexis, a harmless professional dancing partner at a hotel. He was engaged to a wealthy middle-aged woman who was living at the hotel, though whether he really considered himself engaged or was just humoring her is uncertain. (Many suspected the latter.)   She believed that Bolsheviks had killed him.  And his former girlfriend, another professional dancer, says that he bored her with stories about his grand relations in Russia.

The puzzle is almost impossible to solve, and three of the suspects are wanderers who appear again and again with and without beards, dyed hair, and dark glasses.  Who is in disguise, and who is not?  There are some unlikely twists and turns, but they seem more and more realistic as Sayers moves on to the horrifying finish.  You have to read to the end–I can’t tell you!

The Poison Pen in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

Dorothy sayers gaudy night 51HkbAgFJTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gaudy Night is not Dorothy Sayers’s most amusing mystery, but it is undoubtedly her most brilliant literary novel.

The elaborate plot is disturbing and hyperrealistic.  The heroine, Harriet Vane, a tormented mystery writer who was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, a women’s college at Oxford, to investigate a poison pen writer who is also playing poltergeist.  Her long-time suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective and star of most of Sayers’s novels, comes to her aid. The women at the college, who pride themselves on their independence in the 1930s when women’s education was not the status quo, ironically need a man to solve the case.

And yet, despite this clichéd business of the women’s failure to find the perpetrator, Sayers deepens the psychology of her characters.. Harriet, who has always been improbably annoyed by Peter’s attentions, becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic as she seeks a refuge in scholarship at Oxford, only to be tormented by fear again. And it turns out that Peter, exhausted by work at the Foreign Office, has a similar temperament. He got a first at Oxford, which Harriet had not known. He also wishes he could retreat to Oxford, but the world exists there, too.

sayers old paperback gaudy_nightUsually I read for character, not plot, but what strikes me on my third reading of Gaudy Night is the very contemporary problem of the poison pen.  On the internet there are trolls.  Oddly, it is TV-watching that has brought this issue to my attention.  The beautiful Rumer Willis, one of the finalists on Dancing with the Stars this season, has said that she was “bullied” on social media about her unconventional looks (and, indeed, some of these horrifying tweets were shown on this DWTS episode).

I rarely see this kind of comment at book blogs, and fortunately am under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. But social media can be risky, and even online book discussions can be contentious. I have seen perfectly nice online groups splinter over very insignificant matters. Indeed, I have never been forgiven by a Virago group, or perhaps it was a Persephone group, for gently mocking the constant Virago and Persephone reading weeks.  And I love Viragos!

Jason Silverman’s wrote in article in 2012 about the pressure on the internet to be  “nice,” i.e., uncritical.  I wrote a response at my old blog:

I once said something about Persephone books (or was it Virago?) that upset quite a few bloggers who every few months declared it Persephone Week (or was it Virago Week?). I spoke out against “Amazon affiliates” and got even more grief. And recently I was called a “bitch” and a “bad reader” for trashing John Irving’s In One Person. …but I delete all comments that call me a bitch, unless I forget (which happens if I’m busy).

There are poison pens online, and there are patrol pens online.  But of course there are also good friends on the net.