Mar 22, 2010

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm sorry! I feel like I'm going to single-handedly make you all sick and tired of Dorothy L. Sayers by sheer gushy repetition. But I can't help the fact that I seem to have developed a bit of an obsession. The good news for those of you who are getting tired of hearing me go on and on about her is that Busman's Honeymoon is the last of the Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. For me, however, this is nothing short of tragic news, and I even might have actually shed a tear or two when I finished this book. I so didn't want to part from these characters. Valerie was kind enough to point out that there were a few short stories featuring them, but I might have already devoured those too, which means that there's really nothing more for me to read. Sadness. (Though there's some comfort to be found in the fact that I still haven't read all those Lord Peter sans Harriet books.)

Busman's Honeymoon begins right where Gaudy Night left off, with (this might be spoiler-y, but I think it doesn't actually ruin things to know that they do end up together. I won't tell you how it happens, of course) Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey getting engaged. The first section of the book, which is told through letters between several characters and journal entries by Lord Peter's mother, describes their engagement and wedding. And oh, what fun I had reading it. Lord Peter's mother is a hilarious and perceptive narrator, and through her we get glimpses of some truly sweet moments between Harriet and Peter. But - and this is the interesting thing - they're really only glimpses. Sayers never really shows us anything truly explicit (and no, by “explicit” I don't mean sexual), which somehow only makes the glimmers of emotions we do get to see stand out all the more. More than anything, Sayers suggests and implies, and the reader’s imagination does the rest.

Busman's Honeymoon is, of course, a murder mystery, and by now you just might be wondering where the murder this. After the first 150 or so pages, which are pure fun, the book becomes much darker: a body is found in the country farmhouse where Harriet and Peter have gone for a quiet honeymoon. Having found themselves involved in the murder, they can't just walk away and go have fun elsewhere, leaving someone who committed a crime on the loose behind them; and, even more importantly, leaving the suspicion hanging over the heads of several innocents. Busman's Honeymoon is different from Sayer's other books in that it's a country village mystery. We get to know the characters and see what makes them tick, all along knowing that the culprit is one of them; possibly even someone we actually like. Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane know this too, and Sayers doesn't make light of it. Unlike, say, Have His Carcase, this is not an impersonal mystery. And despite the sheer delight that the first third of the book offers, it's not a light story either. But its darkness and complexity are a big part of the reason why I loved it so much - it lived up to Gaudy Night, and that's saying a lot.

Sayers herself admitted, in a letter a friend, that Busman's Honeymoon was either a love story with detective interruptions or a love story with detective interruptions. I think it's neither, actually, because the love story and the mystery are tied so close together that I never felt that one was interrupting the other. The difficult things that Harriet and Peter have to face have an impact on their relationship, and they move the characterisation forwards immensely. Busman's Honeymoon is, among other things, a book about the fact that happiness and intimacy are not easy. It looks beyond the “happily ever after” and shows us what's on the other side.

I love Sayers so much for not ending these characters' stories with them getting together at the end of Gaudy Night. The great majority of love stories tend to be about what people call “the thrill of the chase” (only I hate that metaphor and everything it implies with a passion), but personally I'm a much bigger fan of stories about long-term intimacy. We need more of those – we need stories that acknowledge all the hard work that actually remaining close to another human being requires; that being permanently vulnerable before someone, navigating difficulties, and remaining honest and respectful always is not necessarily easy. Happiness is not effortless, especially for those who don’t necessarily expect it. Busman's Honeymoon is one of those stories, and I love it for it.

Also, all the gender considerations Sayers introduced in Gaudy Night (and before that, really) and present here again, though in different ways. Harriet and Peter are two people struggling not to slip into the roles that everyone around them expects them to play; to remain, before one another, primarily two human beings rather than Husband and Wife.

Moving back to the mystery, I want to share a passage in which Sayers explains something I have always felt to be true about her books: that they’re primarily howdunits rather than whodunits. At one point in the investigation, Peter Wimsey says:
‘You can have no idea (…) 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 a motive, which is a matter for psychologists. (…) 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.’
It’s funny: if I had been told this about her books out of context I might have been put off. I like psychological explorations of motivation, thank you very much, and I’d probably think that this would make her mysteries impersonal and not really character-oriented at all. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course, because while it’s true that she doesn’t really go for in-depth psychological portrays of her criminals, the complexity of characterisation is all there in her amateur detectives themselves. And that’s just fine by me.

I’ll shut up soon, but one last thing: I loved the ending of this book. It was perfect and painful and it left me in tears. I won’t give it away, naturally, but it has to do with everything I was saying before about closeness and vulnerability being hard work. Plus we learn a lot more about Lord Peter and Bunter and the origin of their friendship (as that’s what it is, really, even if officially they’re Lord and Servant). We also learn about what Peter saw and went through in the Great War, and the consequences of those experiences. But I’ll say no more. Just…Dorothy Sayers, you have earned my undying love.

Bits I liked:
He appeared satisfied, but Harriet cursed herself for a fool. This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all. Being preposterously fond of a person didn’t prevent one from hurting him unintentionally. She had an uncomfortable feeling that his confidence had been shaken and that this was not the end of the misunderstanding. He was not the kind of man to whom you could say, ‘Darling, you’re wonderful and whatever you do is right’ – whether you thought so or not. He would write you down a fool. Nor was he the sort who said, ‘I know what I’m doing and you must take my word for it’ (Thank God for that, anyway!). He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all.
And this – this is perhaps the clearest of those glimpses of raw emotion I was talking about before. Call me a sap, but it made me cry:
She lifted his head between her hands, and what she saw in his face stopped her heart.
‘Oh, my dear, don’t… Not all that… It’s terrifying to be so happy.’
‘Ah, no, it’s not,’ he said quickly, taking courage from her fear.

All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday;
Running it never runs from us away
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

He shook his head, vexed at his own impotence.
‘How can I find words? Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do—’
‘Except to teach me for the first time what they mean.’
He found it hard to believe.

‘Have I done that?’
‘Oh, Peter –’ Somehow she must make him believe it, because it mattered so much that he should. ‘All my life I have been wandering in the dark—but now I have found your heart—and am satisfied.’
‘And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? – I love you – I am at rest with you – I have come home.’
*sniff* Best couple ever. And sorry, this is huge. It seems that once I get started I really cannot shut up about Sayers.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I'll add your link here.)


  1. No need to apologize for the length, my dear. I'm only sorry that this will be the last time I get to hear you talk about Harriet and Peter. It truly is a treat, you know. Now I fear it will be impossible for you to find any more mysteries that live up to Sayers though. I hope that's not really the case, but from everything you've said in all these posts I can tell she's set the bar pretty darn high. :)

  2. So does she ONLY write mysteries? Because I'm not a big mystery fan...

  3. It is hard saying goodbye to beloved characters, isn't it? On the upside, you can always reread the books. :-)

  4. I know exactly what you mean about being sad when a series is over with! It's like losing friends!

    And I know what Harriet means about it being terrifying to be happy. More terrifying than being sad!

  5. I think her Harriet and Peter books were the first ones that I read that showed a different sort of love story, not a Hollywood or fairytale version. Like you, I loved the way she showed two people struggling with their feelings, making things so hard for one another yet finally admitting and opening up to each other about how they truly felt. All in a fantastic mystery. Every time I see the word incunabula, I always think of Peter Wimsey!

  6. Obviously I have to read these books. I agree with everything you say about relationships and their portrayal and moan about the same thing quite often on television. :)

    I think sometimes this is the thing I like about crime fiction or mysteries is the ongoing series allows you to really know characters and to explore things like this. In any case, I'm so sorry the books are over. I know the pain.

  7. I think I am going to start these books from the very beginnning, sans Harriet. Just to get to know Peter better on his own and then see him with the female.

    But still- not starting them until I finish Heyer's mysteries! Nope, nope, nope.

  8. You've convinced me - I need to try her work. Another great review!

  9. Are you going to read Thrones, Dominations? Want to read it with me if so? I bought it at the book fair and have been eying it suspiciously trying to decide whether it is worth reading, or will most likely infuriate me by not being Sayersy enough for me.

    Incidentally, another of my favorite mystery writers, a woman obviously hugely influenced by Peter and Harriet, utterly spoiled the emotional impact of Busman Honeymoon's ending for me by poking fun at it in one of her books. If I'd read Busman's Honeymoon first, I doubt it would have had the same effect, but as it was, I read Busman's Honeymoon with the echo of this one line in my head, and couldn't take it seriously. Which I'm sure wasn't at all the intended effect.

  10. Gush away! I love posts about books that people truly love. You have made me want to re-read! Revel in all it's reality based insights into love which is itself a mystery.

  11. I don't think you can make us sick and tired of gushing!! I picked up one of her books at a you're making me want to read it immediately!

  12. It so happened that this was the first Dorothy Sayers I ever read, which is a bit odd considering how much back story I was missing. But I really loved it, and it definitely made me want to go back and get to know Peter and Harriet better afterward. Bizarrely, the ending also made a great introduction. They just had such a darling busman's honeymoon!

  13. I love, love, love the Wimsey/Vane books and I have so appreciated your Sayers posts. The Wimsey/Vane books were my introduction to Sayers, and I moved on from there to the books that feature Peter Wimsey solo. I quite enjoyed the latter, but I'm not sure that I would have warmed to Lord Peter as character in the way that I did if I hadn't met him with Harriet first. So, just as well to have begun where I did!

  14. I have got to get on the Sayers bus here. I keep hearing wonderful things, and yet I have to admit I have never read a thing by her.

  15. You have made me want to read Dorothy L. Sayers! I am sure I will hunt her books here! Very sure!

  16. Murder mysteries are great fun! Well, in a cozy I love to read them when the weather is lame kind of way. I said in one of your previous posts how I have a copy of Gaudy Night, so I think I'm going to search out a copy of this one as well!

    Would you recommend reading them back to back?

  17. I'm so happy to see your joy at reading these books. The four Wimsey/Vane mysteries are probably my all-time favorite mystery novels. I've also read all the ones with just Lord Peter too, except, I think, the Five Red Herrings, and they're also very good but can't quite touch these.

    BTW, did you notice the next Classics Circuit is on detective fiction, including Sayers? Should be good fun, and I'd love to see folks interested in Sayers joining in and giving her books a try.

  18. Good to know that the final book in this set doesn't disappoint! I must say that your vigor over these books has been infectious, and I am going to be trying again soon with Sayers. Great review, your thoughts were wonderful!

  19. Debi: I have faith in Laurie R. King, since I loved the first Mary Russell book, but she's not quite up there with Sayers.

    Amanda: She also wrote essay collections, but I don't think you're usually a fan of those either :P

    Wendy: True - there's comfort in that too :)

    Jill: I think so too. There's so much you can lose when you're happy.

    Chasingbawa: I know! I'm so impressed with how she managed both the mystery and the more personal side of these stories. Well, I'm impressed with everything about these books, to be honest.

    Amy: That's a very good point. I like that about fantasy also, though I think fantasy series tend to be shorter. Maybe because with fantasy there's more of an overall plot that stretches through the series, and with mysteries each book has its own plot. Though there are exceptions, of course, like Discworld. No wonder I love it so :P

    Aarti: I just worry Peter sans Harriet won't be as appealing - so promise me you won't give up on these if you don't like those early ones quite as much :P

    Kathy, thank you! And yay, I'm glad you're going to give her a try :)

    Jenny: I want to, and I'd love to read it with you - but like you, I worry it won't be Sayersy enough :P At least we can be disappointed together if it's not. And that's such a pity about the ending of Busman's Honeymoon :\ Who was the writer?

  20. Frances: I'm glad to hear my gushing wasn't tiresome :P I can see myself returning to these again and again over the years. They've quickly become a part of me, so much so I can't believe I haven't always known them. And I love it when that happens.

    Staci: I so hope you enjoy it!

    Nicole: I think I'd still have loved Busman's Honeymoon if I'd read it first, unlike, say, Gaudy Night. Maybe it's because in this book the tension has already been resolved, and we're left with what comes afterwards. Which is just as exciting to read about, really, but in a different way.

    Kate: I have the same suspicion. I'm glad I started with these, and I look forward to reading all the other Peter books in the future.

    Trisha: Until a few months ago, neither had I :P But that's the beauty of blogging :D

    Veens: I really hope that you enjoy them!

    April: I don't think reading them back to back matters, not nearly as much as reading them in order. I read Strong Poison back in October and only picked up the others now, But once I got to Have His Carcase, I was so hooked that I had to read Gaudy Night and this one immediately afterwards. Possibly the same will happen to you :P

    Teresa: I am now very very excited about the Classics Circuit tour :D I do hope lots of people discover Sayers through it.

    Zibilee: I am so glad you're going to give them another try! Honesty, I think I'd have felt much as you did had I started with Gaudy Night.

  21. OK, you make me want to forget the rest and hop onto the Sayers bandwagon. You bad girl, Ana. It's OK to gush about this. :D

  22. I need to find this series via the library, nice review. I have an award for you

  23. Oh, goody! I didn't want to read it all by myself. :)

    The author is Elizabeth Peters. I, er, I didn't mention her name before for fear of putting you off Crocodile on the Sandbank. :P The love interest guy in Night Train to Memphis, who I always think owes a lot to Lord Peter, tells the protagonist: "I am not one of those sensitive over-educated aristocrats who writhes around in a frenzy of guilt because he has been responsible for bringing a psychopath to his or her well-deserved end."

  24. I love a good mystery from time to time, yet I have never read this author --sad, I know.; maybe sometime soon.

  25. Oh, sniff, indeed - for how sweet LPW and HV are together and for the fact that this is the last one. But talk about going out on a high note! No petering out over the course of a series for Ms. Sayers!

  26. *sniff* Read some of these too long ago to count, loved the PBS series--which did not have much of Miss Harriet in it--have been vicariously enjoying them through you. Now I must must must read them all!! You are very bad for a person's tbr list, Ms. Nymeth--but very good for a person's local library ;) Thanks!

  27. Oh, I'm so sorry I won't be able to read this before I go! It sounds wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Thank goodness for well-stocked libraries, at least.


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