Mar 8, 2010

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Harriet Vane, the detective novelist who was acquitted of poisoning her lover in Strong Poison, is taking a hiking holiday by the sea. One day, after eating her lunch on an isolated beach, she falls asleep. When a loud scream awakes her, she gets up and walks through the beach, only to find the body of a man whose throat was slit from ear to ear. The razor that did the deed is right by the body, so all signs seem to point to suicide. But Harriet remains unconvinced – and so does Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective who comes from London to help the local polite with the investigation.

The mystery we have here is quite a complex one, and the solution is difficult to guess until fairly late in the book—this is because for things to fall into place you need to have certain pieces of information that are only slowly revealed. Then again, whenever I say this about a book, someone much cleverer than me inevitably comes along and points out that actually, the twist or the solution to the mystery was completely obvious from page one. I’m not good at guessing mysteries or twists, but in the case of Have His Carcase, I had my suspicions all along concerning the whodunit. However, like in Strong Poison, the emphasis is actually more on the howdunit—how do apparently incongruous details fit into the larger picture? How does one break a water-tight alibi? How can the impossible be very much possible after all?

Having said this, I have to confess I wasn't all that interested in the mystery this time, mostly because it doesn't really involve Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey - they just more or less happen to be investigating it. But on the bright side, this is exactly what releases them from the tension of Strong Poison and makes lighter and freer moments between the two of them possible. The fact that the reader isn't as emotionally invested in the mystery is what makes Have His Carcase a fun book.

And oh, it is fun. I love these characters, so watching them spend time together, interact, grow closer (though Harriet would never admit it) and have countless witty exchanges was a complete delight. And it’s not just that they’re witty and fun to spend time with—they have depth, too. I’ll say more on this when I post my gushfest of a review of Gaudy Night later this week, but for now I wanted to say that I very much agree with Memory’s recent point about Lord Peter Wimsey and class. She compared him to Agatha Christie’s sleuths, who have very rigid class attitudes. I’ve yet to read Christie, so I can’t comment on the comparison itself, but I do agree that Wimsey is very much not a Look-At-Me-I’m-An-Aristocrat sort of character. In a way, I think Sayers’ choice to make him an aristocrat might have had to do with a desire to comment on class with subtlety and incision; to use the perceived authority of a title to subvert the class system. Do those of you who know her work better agree?

This isn’t, of course, to say that Sayers’ books convey a sensibility and social awareness that lives up to twentieth-first century standards - naturally enough, they don’t. There is, for example, Harriet Vane's instant assumption that an older woman who's involved with a younger man is “grotesque”. Mrs Weldon, the character in question, is presented with sympathy, but a sympathy of a pitiful and almost demeaning kind. Then again, to be fair I have to say that many people would make the exact same assumption today about any relationship where the woman was noticeably older than the man. Still, there are other examples I could give you. But my point is really that considering that these books were written in the 1930's, there was surprisingly little that made me cringe. I wouldn’t resent Sayers for reflecting the dominant ideology of her time, but I love her all the more for subverting it in many ways.

Some of my favourite bits (I have no idea whether the witty banter works out of context; apologies in advance if it doesn’t):
‘By all means,’ said Harriet. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘From London – like a bird who 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.’

‘…I found it.’
‘You did. And I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event – one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted lichee. It will not be an unimportant side-show attached to a detective investigation.’
‘I think you are a little intoxicated by the excitement of the discovery,’ said Harriet, coldly. ‘You say you came here looking for a horse?’

‘Altars may reel’, said Wimsey, “Mr Thomas may abandon his dress-suit and Mr Snowden renounce Free Trade, and the second law of thermodynamics will endure while memory holds her seat in this distracted globe, by which Hamlet means his head but which I, with a wider intellectual range, apply to the planet which we have the rapture of inhabiting. Inspector Umpelty appears shocked, but I assure you that I know no more impressive way of affirming my entire belief in your absolute integrity.’ He grinned.
Other Opinions:
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  1. I love this book! It's one of my favourite mysteries. It's the second book in the trilogy where Harriet comes in. Now you have Gaudy Night to look forward to.

  2. I've read both Strong Poison and Gaudy Night already, actually :) Will post about Gaudy Night later this week. I absolutely LOVED it.

  3. Reading your review makes me want to re-read all the Lord Peter and Harriet books. Oh how I loved them.

  4. Sayers is one of those authors I'm sorry to say I've never read. Sigh.

  5. This sounds like a book that I would enjoy and that my mom would love! Thanks for another great review.

  6. Great review. You've made me want to read a book that I otherwise would pass by. Thanks!

  7. Never heard of it. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

  8. I've heard great things about Sayers. I just read my first Georgette Heyer mystery, which was fun but a little fluffy. I'll have to try Sayers next.

  9. Sayers is an author I need to try again. I read Gaudy Night last year, but it was my first book by her and it definitely wasn't the right place to start because I had no background context for any of the relationships and so I wasn't invested in the Harriet & Peter romance. I think I'll need to start at the beginning and hopefully that will help me better appreciate her books!

  10. I was going to get all the Sayers books I have at my parents' house back to the city with me yesterday, but there were so many and I still have several Heyers to read through that I decided to wait. She'll still be there for me to discover later :-)

  11. I enjoyed this post so much. I am going to do a proper review of Have His Carcase one of these days, because I love it more than I wrote nice things about it.

    Are you planning to read Busman's Honeymoon?

  12. I love that first paragraph you liked from the book about marriage. I think I would enjoy both of these.

  13. I loved these books when I was back in college. I don't normally save mysteries, but I still have every one of the Wimsey books. Maybe it's time for a re-read of them!

  14. Oh frabjous day! You loved Have His Carcase as much as I do. And the quotes you shared are perfect. Now you need to see if you can get the DVDs of the BBC series with Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter. So, so good.

  15. I love mysteries! But I've been mainly reading Agatha Christie so this would be a great oppourtunity for me to discover some different crime authors. I'll be searching for this one in the library!

    from Une Parole

  16. I picked up a Sayers book at my library book sale...can't wait to experience her writing!

  17. Now I really want to read the rest of Sayers's work so I can see how well your theory about Lord Peter and class holds up. (Not that I didn't already want to read the rest of her books--but, you know, incentive). Oh, I hope you're right! That would be fanastic!

  18. I met Wimsey a couple of years ago and enjoyed my short time with him. I can't say it spurred me on to want to dive into any of Sayers other books all that quickly, however. I would like to read Gaudy Night eventually though.

  19. I've heard of Sayer's books on Lord Wimsey but haven't actually read any. I am interested now after reading your review. And I like that set of quotes!

  20. Beth: Do! You know you want to :P

    Amanda. Don't get me started on the authors I've never read, lol

    Kathy, I hope both you and your mom do enjoy Sayers :)

    Elisabeth: They're actually quite different from what I usually pick up too - but so worth it!

    Andreea: Like I said of the Anne books, I think you'd like them!

    Karen: I haven't read Heyer yet, though I plan to because she sounds like a lot of fun. But from conversations I've witnessed, I have the impression that Sayers is generally considered a bit meatier.

    steph: I remember your review, and not that I've read Gaudy Night I can see why reading them in order makes a *huge* different - I actually talked about that in the review I scheduled for later this week. I almost started there myself, only I happened to mention it first and like five different bloggers immediately pounced on me screaming, "Noooo!" :P

    Aarti: She will, as will Heyer for me :P

    Jenny: Yes! *points to sidebar excitedly* It arrived yesterday :D I'm not too far into it yet, but oh, I love Lord Peter's mother!

    Vivienne: You would! The dialogue is such fun :)

    Valerie: You and Beth F should start a read-along :P

    Teresa: I do! They sound great. Though I worry I've already become too attached to the characters for any portrayal of them that doesn't exactly match my imagination to feel right :P

    Emidy: Can you believe I've yet to read any Christie? I can't compare them, but these *are* good!

    Staci: yay! Which one was it?

    Memory: I worry that it's just wishful thinking - probably we shouldn't expect *too* much, but there might be something to it. I've started Busman's Honeymoon, and there was such a sweet scene between Bunter and Lord Peter. I like how they're real friends.

    Wendy: Do read Gaudy Night! It's mind-blowingly good. I really strongly recommend reading all the Harriet Vane books in order, though.

    Alice: I hope you enjoy them!

  21. Oh, I just love LPW and HV. Looking forward to your Gaudy Night review.

  22. Like Steph, I have only read one book by Sayers, and it was Gaudy Night. I'm afraid it didn't go well for me because there was just too much inside information that I did not really grasp. I had been thinking about starting with one of her earlier books, but hadn't yet gotten the chance to read one. I am glad that you liked this book so much and I will be checking back to see your thoughts on Gaudy Night. Maybe you will inspire me to try again!

  23. I'm looking forward to reading more of Sayers' mysteries. I watched the PBS "Lord Peter Wimsey" series a decade or two ago and LOVED the episodes. I've got several of her essays laying around waiting for me to read. I'm particularly looking forward to "Are Women Human?" -- her humorous treatise on gender equality. I've looked forward to it for so long that I hope I actually like it when I get to it!

  24. Now you're reviewing these books, too! *peer pressure*

  25. This sounds very good. I love a good mystery. And what a cool title.

  26. Lorin: They have quickly become some of my very favourite characters!

    Zibilee: I do think it's worth trying again after you've read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase. You'll appreciate it so much more.

    Terri B: I've gone ahead and ordered that essay. I hope it's good, or else :P (Just kidding...I know there's no way it won't be good, but even if I didn't like it I wouldn't blame you.)

    Heidenkind: Peer pressure FTW :P

    Naida, I do think you'd enjoy this series :)

  27. I couldn't find my copy when I went looking (Are Women Human), so I requested it from interlibrary loan. I'm planning on reading it when it arrives. I look forward to your thoughts (and mine!). I hope both of us end up liking it. I have no one to blame if I don't -- hee hee ;o)


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