Have His Carcase, Dorothy Sayers

Poor old Have His Carcase! I read it in a bad temper in 2009 and wrote a terse little post about it that didn’t come close to giving it its due. This time around, the normal thing happened, which is that I grabbed it to read while I was brushing my teeth, became addicted, and ended up reading all three Vane-Wimsey books. (Not Busman’s Honeymoon, I don’t like the mystery in that one.) Having just finished Gaudy Night, I am sorry that I criticized Peter for pestering Harriet to marry him. He is actually quite a good character, and for fictional characters in a series of detective novels, Harriet and Peter have quite an impressively good relationship: complex without making the reader feel she’s being strung along (neither avoiding nor amping up the emotions), plus they obviously really enjoy each other’s company. Enjoy each other’s company! Other writers, make note.

Mystery writer Harriet Vane discovers a body while on vacation in Wilvercombe, and Peter Wimsey, friend and detective and would-be husband, comes along to detect things with her. This is the only book when the two of them really get to have sumptuous fun detecting things, and I love seeing them work together. All the suspects have alibis in varying levels of suspiciousness. All the elements of the case are like something out of a trashy adventure novel: too absurd to be believable, or too humdrum to be bothered with.

Please forget everything I said in my stroppy mood in 2009, if you read it then. Have His Carcase is excellent. The mystery is complicated and unintelligible right to the end, but then it has a tidy solution. Meanwhile there are so many good character moments for Peter and Harriet! Strong Poison shows them together a few times, and of course a number of things happen in Gaudy Night, but Have His Carcase is the book where they spend the most time together. You see exactly why they like to be around each other, and exactly why Harriet won’t let it become something more.

WHO I LOVE. I made that clear, right? I LOVE THEM. Or, well, I love Harriet, and the fact that Peter falls in love with her and she likes being around him makes me like him better than I otherwise might. Harriet Vane is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. She makes me like all sorts of things I wouldn’t necessarily like in the normal way of things: claret-colored frocks (just kidding, I would look amazing in a claret-colored frock), the name Harriet (let’s face it, you wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with Harriet the Spy), Sheridan le Fanu (well…probably! One day! When I try him!), punting (ditto), sonnets, etc. Harriet Vane! She is the best! In her claret-colored frock! (She bought a claret-colored frock! Never ever able to stop myself from having a teeny little squeeee about this.)

(That’s right. I don’t care for sonnets. I just don’t care for them.)

If you are thinking of taking up Dorothy Sayers, I direct you to Strong Poison. If you don’t love it, read Have His Carcase. If you don’t like that, you must be crazy but nevertheless, read Gaudy Night. Have His Carcase is a damn enjoyable book, but one of the enduringly nicest things about it is that you finish it and you get to ready Gaudy Night. Oh Gaudy Night! Oh Gaudy Night and your beautiful exploration of gender and your just general beautifulness! I cannot fathom how anyone could read Gaudy Night and not love it to shreds. It’s one of my favorite books in all the land, and what’s even better, it’s one of those books I can reread almost any time and love it. I’m rereading it now. God it’s good.

What book am I supposed to be talking about again? Have His Carcase? In sum, Harriet gets a claret-colored frock, and the murder might be a suicide. Don’t live a Harriet-Vane-less life. A Harriet-Vane-ful life is better.

See also:

things mean a lot
Stella Matutina
Ela’s Book Blog
Notes from the North
Becky’s Book Reviews

Tell me if I missed yours!

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.)