Review: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy Sayers

Tra-la, tra-la, I am jonesing so hard for Dorothy Sayers right now I don’t even know what to say about it. My clever-but-not-always-right friend tim stopped me from buying several other Dorothy Sayers mysteries or else it would be a Dorothy Sayers Festival all up in here. I want to read all her books. And then I want to travel to an alternate universe where she wrote more books than Agatha Christie, and read all those additional books. Many of them would feature Harriet Vane. Sigh.

In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, an old guy dies in the club on Armistice Day, at an unspecified time. This would all be fine, except that his wealthy sister also died very recently, and the inheritance depends on knowing exactly who died first. Wishing to avoid any further unpleasantness, the lawyer of the dead man’s sons asks Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate the matter.

Why I read the end: To find out who done it. Obviously.

Reviewing mysteries is hard! I think basically mysteries by the same author tend to go a certain way, and if you like the detective, and if you like the way the author writes mysteries, then hooray, you will generally like all their mysteries! I am awfully fond of Dorothy Sayers. I sometimes wonder if I would have liked Peter Wimsey as much if I’d spent all those books with him being all arrogant and know-it-all, before meeting Harriet. But, moot point! I met him and Harriet at the same time, he made Alice in Wonderland references and saved Harriet from hanging, and hence I like him. And I like Dorothy Sayers and her mysteries.

One reason I love Dorothy Sayers is that famous thing she said, that she was broke when she was writing her Peter Wimsey mysteries and she consoled herself for her poverty by giving Wimsey nice things. Oh, Dorothy Sayers. I am right there with you. When I run out of all my toiletries all at once and I have to spend half my weekly budget on replacing them, and then I can’t buy the pens I wanted or go see The Adjustment Bureau, I fetch out one of my stories and write nice things for my rich character to buy. Like an area rug! (I know, right? Dreamin’ big!)

Fin.

Y’all, I am in such a reviewing rut. I have books to review but when I sit down to write reviews, they come out really stupid. Including this one! Why am such a terrible book blogger? I think it is maybe because I’m having a little bit of a vacation hangover. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m a bad blogger! I will try to do better.

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, ed. Barbara Reynolds

This is the first volume of Dorothy Sayers’s letters, actually. It’s properly called, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899 – 1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist.  I am displeased at having two colons in the title.   You know what was most satisfying about this book?  How when I got all through with it, I kept remembering bits of it and thinking, Darn, wish I’d marked that passage, and then glancing back through the book and finding that I had.  Hurrah for me!

Dorothy Sayers was an interesting lady, and this book covers the period of her life with which I am most familiar.  She goes to school, she goes to Oxford (before the women actually, you know, got degrees at the end), she works as a teacher, she works in publishing, she works in advertising, she finally settles down to being a writer.  I found these career difficulties rather soothing, as I am having a hard time of adulthood so far.  It is nice to know that someone whose writing I admire had the same difficulties.

Barbara Reynolds, the editor, also a Sayers biographer, does a brilliant job of selecting and editing the letters.  I expect most times when people produce volumes of letters, it’s for the sake of scholars.  I know that my Oscar Wilde letters book contains zillions of letters of no particular importance or significance to someone not researching him (and probably loads of people who are).  And I can see why people don’t do volumes of letters like this very often, for a more casual audience, because really, how much of a readership can they expect in that case?  But it’s lovely when they do it, and Dorothy Sayers was an excellent letter-writer.  These made me want to read a proper biography of Dorothy Sayers, and I shall as soon as I go to the library.

So this is the best Dorothy Sayers story I know so far.  Ready?  Okay.  Once upon a time she had an affair with a writer called John Cournos.  He sounds terrible.  “John was ‘nice’ enough Friday week in a general way, but I fear he has no sympathy with Lord Peter, being the kind of man who takes his writing seriously and spells Art with a capital A.”  Anyway she was madly in love with him and wanted to get married and have babies, but he kept saying he didn’t love her, she wasn’t interesting, and he  just wanted to get laid.  She refused to use contraception, and he refused to have sex without it, and what with one thing and another they broke it off.  And he made fun of her for writing detective stories.

(Do you know that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that says He laughed at all I dared to praise / And broke my heart, in little ways?  I love that bit.  I bet that is just how Dorothy Sayers felt.)

Anyway, she went off and had an affair with a guy she didn’t care much about, and although they did use contraception, she still got pregnant; and he went off and married a detective novelist and told her, essentially, that if she’d had sex with him he would have married her and it was a test and she failed.  Cad.  She had the baby in secret and fostered it with a cousin and never told her parents.  It’s not clear to me yet whether she ever told the baby; later on in his life, she and her husband (not the baby-daddy; a different person) “adopted” him, and he was told to regard her as his adopted mother.  Which must have been strange.

She never told her parents.  I mean, I think her life would have been easier if she had, but serious props to her secret-keeping ability.  She would write them letters that referenced the cousin, Ivy, who was keeping the baby, along with some other children, and even referenced the baby, without saying it was hers.  Behold:

I think [Ivy] would be sorry to give up the children and the girl would hate leaving her – though no doubt she will have to sometime.  The baby, I gather, can, if necessary, be disposed of, if time is given to make arrangements.

(But don’t worry.  Ivy sorted out her living arrangements and carried on fostering John Anthony.)

There are also a quantity of letters to John Cournos, written after she had the baby and he got married, where she tells him her secret and they apparently rehash their whole affair.  Terrible idea!  I wanted her to stop, as he had obviously won the break-up, but she carried on writing to him.  I can’t blame her, poor baby, with that enormous secret on her mind.  Eventually she fictionalized him as Philip Boyes in Strong Poison and poisoned him with arsenic, and I imagine it was tremendously satisfying.

He got revenge by fictionalizing their affair in one of his books, and talking all about all the stuff they did and quoting from her letters like a cad, but you will be pleased to hear, it was terribly dull and silly and only had the effect of making him look like a prat.  But at least he didn’t burn all her letters like some writers I could mention who didn’t want to look bad even though they are bad, yes Ted Hughes, I am talking to you (it was journals really, in Ted Hughes’ case).

It was interesting too, reading about her work on the Harriet Vane books, especially Gaudy Night.  It is fun reading about the process that created characters and books – I suppose because in spite of what Barthes says I am still intrigued by knowing what the author intended, especially here when she managed it so nicely.  Sayers sounded rather apologetic when she sent Gaudy Night to her publisher, saying that it wasn’t really one thing or another, but it had to be written.  It must have been a hell of a thing to get finished, and I felt triumphant on her behalf that it turned out so good.  And apparently nobody liked Harriet Vane!  I can’t imagine why.  Harriet Vane is utterly one of my favorite characters ever!  But here’s the evidence:

You are one of the very few people with intelligent sympathy for Lord Peter and his Harriet.  Most of them beg me not to let him marry ‘that horrid girl’.  They don’t understand the violent conflict underlying her obstinacy – I am glad you do.  There’s stuff in Harriet, but it isn’t the conventional heroine stuff, you see.  My only reason for holding her up is that the situation between her and Lord P. is psychologically so difficult that it really needs a whole book to examine and resolve.

And, on writing Gaudy Night (I sympathize!):

I think I have got over most of the technical snags in Gaudy Night now, but the writing is being horribly difficult.  Peter and Harriet are the world’s most awkward pair of lovers – both so touchy and afraid to commit themselves to anything but hints and allusions!

On the mysteries question:

I have also been annoyed (stupidly enough) by a lot of reviewers who observed the identity of the murder was obvious from the start (as indeed it is also in Unnatural Death and The Documents in the Case).  Personally, I feel that it is only when the identity of the murderer is obvious that the reader can really concentrate on the question (much the most interesting) How did he do it?

And why.  Sensible woman.  I can’t proceed to her next volume of letters until I’ve read some of the works referenced therein, her plays and Christian writing.  I love reading letters.  Do y’all have any suggestions of interesting letters I can read?  I’ve done Tolkien, I’m in the midst of Sayers right now, and of course I’ve done the lovely Browning letters.  Bless.

While I’m on letters, this is brilliant.  Van Gogh’s letters are all nicely digitized, in facsimile and in translation, and with useful notes as well as images of any pictures he references.  The Van Gogh Museum is made out of win.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night.  I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one.  Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified.  (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro?  If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.)  I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.

Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her.  She receives several unpleasant  anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness.  Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her.  There are many hijinks.

Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel.  Oh how I love it.  It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life.  Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.

I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it.  Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF.  Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.

Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed.  They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her.  I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad.  It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.

In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange.  And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either.  I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery.  I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons.  This is the fun of mysteries to me.  The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.

Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.

How do you read mysteries?  Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me?  Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once?  If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer?  (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it?  At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)

Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers

Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, together again, hooray!  Harriet Vane has gone off for a vacation in a watering-place (watering-place.  Brits are so weird.), and she happens upon a dead body, all throat-cut and bloody.  The corpse is dancer Paul Alexis, who is engaged (slightly sordidly) to an extremely rich older woman called Mrs. Weldon, and appears to have been part of a strange Bolshevik type plot.  All of the possible suspects have unbreakable alibis.  Harriet will still not marry Peter, but he carries on badgering her to marry him anyway.

I am mildly bothered by Peter’s continual badgering of Harriet to marry him even though she says no, no, no.

I love Peter and Harriet.  If I had not already put my book upstairs, I would excerpt a brief bit of it where Harriet and Peter are out merrily detecting.  The only thing is, I wasn’t in the mood for Have His Carcase at all.  I was totally in the mood for Strong Poison, and I guess I just assumed I was in the mood for Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night and even Busman’s Honeymoon.  Turns out, not a bit of it!  I got tired of Have His Carcase, but I know I love it so I didn’t stop reading it, and when I got done, I still didn’t feel satisfied.  Just not in the mood.

But it’s wonderful though.  If you haven’t read it, don’t take my cranky mood to mean that you shouldn’t read it straight away after rereading Strong Poison.  Just don’t assume that you should always, always read all the sequels to a book for which you are in the mood, because sometimes you are only in the mood to read the original book itself.  I think I am tired of mysteries for now.  I’m going to read something totally different that isn’t Gaudy Night or Busman’s Honeymoon or that other Peter Wimsey mystery I got out of the library.

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers

So apparently?  Dorothy Sayers did not write her Harriet Vane books all in a row.  Murder Must Advertise happens after Peter has already met Harriet, but Harriet doesn’t feature in it at all.  In between wooing Harriet and solving mysteries with her (and getting woefully rejected), Peter still finds time to gallivant around infiltrating advertising agencies to sort out other problems.  I didn’t know this.  I thought that the books with Harriet just came one after another in direct sequence.

This makes me feel better about Peter and Harriet.  You know how the Doctor asks Donna to come traveling with him in “The Runaway Bride”, and then in the very next episode he asks Martha (mad Martha, blind Martha, charity Martha)?  And if you assume that these episodes happened within a fairly short time of each other, it makes the Doctor seem a tiny bit – just the tiniest bit – desperate.  (I can’t believe I have even written that adjective to refer to David Tennant’s Doctor.)  Whereas if you assume that a good deal of time has passed between the end of “The Runaway Bride” and the start of “Smith and Jones”, it is not so much of a problem.  I feel the same way about Peter and Harriet – I’m glad that while she’s taking vacations and writing novels and going to college reunions, he’s solving staircase mysteries like an undercover copywriting Nancy Drew.  He goes to dinner with her, but between times he solves a mystery and plays cricket!

In Murder Must Advertise, Peter Wimsey comes to Pym Advertising Agency masquerading as a copywriter, in order to discover all he can about the recent death of the copywriter he’s replacing.  The man in question went tumbling down an iron staircase, broke his neck, and cracked his head on the knob at the bottom of the staircase.  Certain parties are not satisfied that it was an accident.

Spoilers ahead in this paragraph: The ad agency had just slightly too many people at it for me to keep track of.  And I never do feel very happy about mysteries in which drugs are introduced.  That seems messy to me, and I like things to be nice and tidy.  Nice little murders committed for personal reasons.  Why add a drug ring into the question at all?  But as drug ring mysteries go, this one was fairly neat, so I didn’t object to it too terribly much.  Peter let the perpetrator commit suicide, rather than be exposed to all as a murderer and a drug dealer, to the disgrace of his loving wife and child.  Whatever, Peter.  BRING HIM TO JUSTICE I SAY.  And then do not you cry about it afterwards, you silly ass.

But never mind.  I like Dorothy Sayers, and I enjoyed Murder Must Advertise.  It was nice to see more of Chief-Inspector and Mary Parker, never enough of the family scene in Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night.  Peter working for a living was an amusing sight to behold, and I enjoyed the bits about life in an advertising agency.  I always like knowing what people in jobs that are not my job are thinking, and what they are all doing from day to day.  Besides which, I like mysteries where there are dozens of suspects and no alibis – this wasn’t quite as good as one of those country house type mysteries (like “The Unicorn and the Wasp”, hullo to my second Doctor Who reference in a single post, good heavens) or The Mousetrap – but nearly.

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers

Strong Poison is a comfort book of mine.  I bought it at Bongs & Noodles one time on the way back from a doctor’s appointment regarding my tendonitis.  It was a very trying year – I was doing four AP courses and two honors ones, and I was very stressed about getting good grades so I could get into college – and anyway, we stopped by Bongs & Noodles and my mother suggested Strong Poison if I was after a new book.  I read it under my desk in calculus (bad, I know, but trust me, nobody was learning anything in that class).  Those books still feel like a haven in the middle of a storm to me, even if no storm is happening.

Peter Wimsey had already starred in several of Dorothy Sayers’s (less good, I believe) mysteries, but Strong Poison is the first one where the delightful and intelligent Harriet Vane shows up.  She’s on trial for murdering her lover, and Lord Wimsey falls madly in love with her at the trial, and decides to solve the mystery and clear her name and marry her.

I love, love, love this book.  I loved it from the second Lord Wimsey started quoting Alice in Wonderland at Harriet’s trial.  Ella over at Box of Books was not in love with the first bit, where Harriet’s at her trial and all the evidence in the case is being set forth, and I can see how that part could seem tedious and expository.  When I first read it, though, I was using it to drown out lessons on differentiating sine and cosine.  You can see how, in those circumstances, just about anything would seem like a thrilling adventure novel by comparison.  It’s kept that feeling of excitement for me even after multiple rereadings.

Peter and Harriet charm me, and their relationship continues to be just as fun and brilliant all through the rest of the books.  I get irritated with Peter a little bit in Busman’s Honeymoon – take a Valium and get over it, guy! – but mostly I find him and Harriet tremendously entertaining.  Because Harriet’s not available to go out solving the mystery, Peter engages the assistance of two women from his personal secretary agency, whose exploits cause me much tension and amusement.  There is a certain element, since I am paying attention for it, of things being excessively convenient, like the secretary Peter engages happening to know about a Trust that’s gone bust, or one of the other spies happening to know all about spiritualism and how to fake seances – but it’s not too jarring.

Do you have books that never get old, no matter how many times you read them?

The Case of Madeleine Smith, Rick Geary

Oh, dear, the plight of women throughout history has been really dreadful.  The Case of Madeleine Smith is a graphic novel (graphic history, I guess) about real-life Victorian lady Madeleine Smith, who may or may not have murdered her lover Emile L’Anglier (though she probably did murder him, the book strongly implies).  It’s a straightforward, fairly impersonal depiction of the story – could just as well be the Classic Comics version!  The book deliberately (I assume) sets the reader at one remove from the players in the story, so it’s more of a history than a story.  I would have liked to hear more about the trial itself.  I love scandalous trials!

It’s a pretty woeful story.  Madeleine Smith, a Glaswegian lady, gets involved with a French guy called Emile L’Anglier.  Against her father’s express wishes, she continues to correspond with him and even has sex with him.  (He lost a lot of sympathy from me by fretting over the fact that she didn’t bleed when she quote unquote lost her virginity – shut up, asshat!)  After a while, her family proposes a more eligible (richer, higher society, nonforeign) suitor for her, and she becomes engaged to him.  Emile L’Anglier is understandably upset about this, given the passionate nature of her letters.  He refuses her request to return the letters and threatens to expose their affair to her father.  Shortly after that he dies of arsenic poisoning.

I feel sorry for both of them.  I feel so sorry for Madeleine Smith, because it’s just not fair that her lover had this much power over her.  She wasn’t the soul of honor throughout their affair, or anything, but it’s legit for a girl to break up with someone.  Instead of accepting it, he threatened to do something that she couldn’t stop him from doing, something that would force her to stay with him.  Ick, ick, ick.  Taking advantage of all the things that penned women in Back In The Day.  And then she goes and (probably) murders him, and everyone calls him a vile seducer and she gets off.  Not really fair, this class business.

An interesting history in comic book form, with nice simple black-and-white line drawings.  Harvard has a glorious digital archive called Studies in Scarlet, all about these sorts of trials in the Victorian period, and they have several resources on Madeleine Smith and her trial, including a bunch of her letters to the unfortunate Mr. L’Anglier, downloadable in handy PDF format.  Sometimes technology is a pain in the ass (see Blackberry) but sometimes it is simply fantastic.  Thanks, Harvard!

What I am thinking about after reading this: Dorothy Sayers and Harriet Vane.  Dorothy Sayers wrote three wonderful books and one slightly-less-wonderful book about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, who solved mysteries together while Peter nursed an (officially) unrequited passion for Harriet.  In the first one, Strong Poison, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her lover Philip Boyle.  She is a mystery writer and had purchased arsenic as part of her research for a book she was doing, and Philip Boyle died of arsenic poisoning, so that doesn’t look good for her.  Even worse for her, she and Philip had been lovers for some time, and had not gotten married because Philip said he didn’t believe in marriage; and then, after stringing her along in this fashion, he finally proposed to her, which irritated Harriet so much she dumped him.  (And then he died.)

Here is why Dorothy Sayers is my total hero, apart from her brilliance and wit, her skill as a writer, her radio plays where Jesus’s disciples had Cockney accents, and her many other lovely qualities: It’s all true.  Not the arsenic part, but the marriage part.  Dorothy Sayers was indeed involved with a writer who claimed not to believe in marriage, and then after a whole year, he told her that no, actually, he had just been pretending to be against marriage in order to test her devotion to him.  So she killed him.  And then had everyone say loads of nasty things about him after he was dead (in her book, I mean – not in real life obviously).  I love her.

Other views on Rick Geary:

an adventure in reading
Andi over at Estella’s Revenge
Bybee