This 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.
And 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!