Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dorothy Sayers: Have His Carcase

Welcome to part two of four in my Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane series. When we last left the most attractive man in fiction, he had just saved the woman he loved from the gallows, but got no closer to winning her affections. After writing a few other Lord Peter books which did not feature Harriet, author Dorothy Sayers picks up her story again with the novel Have His Carcase (That last word is the British spelling of the word "carcass").

Two years after she was exonerated of the charge of murder, Harriet Vane is still trying to create a normal life for herself. The publicity from her murder trial has made her book sales skyrocket, but her personal life remains unsettled. Lord Peter Wimsey continues his attentions to her, but Harriet still cannot decide what to do about him. She will not accept his proposals, but at the same time she does not have the willpower to send him away altogether.

In order to dodge her noble suitor, Harriet decides to go on a walking tour of England. This goes well until  one day she comes across a body with its throat cut lying on a remote beach. Since the tide is coming in quickly, and Harriet knows it will probably be impossible to get the police to the scene before it gets covered in water, she takes pictures of grisly deed, then runs for help.

To all the world this death looks like a suicide--why else would a man with a full beard be in possession of a razor with which to cut his throat? And there is no discernible evidence of another person having been at the crime scene. In Harriet's mind, however, there are enough incongruous elements to make her suspect murder. Being a shrewd businesswoman and generally wary of the press, she calls in the media in order both to garner publicity for her upcoming mystery novel and to deflect suspicion away from herself, since her character has already been darkened.

Unfortunately--in her view, anyway--all that press immediately attracts the attention of Lord Peter Wimsey, who could no more resist an opportunity to solve a murder and court his great flame than a cat could resist a ball of catnip. With the impetuous Lord Peter proposing to her every five minutes, Harriet nevertheless set out with him to solve a case that only seems to get more baffling the further she and Peter go.

The murder victim turns out to be a Russian dancer named Paul Alexis who worked at a local resort. Far from having any reason to want to kill himself, however, Paul Alexis had been about to marry a rich widow and enjoy the life of ease and luxury that he'd always wanted. Of course the fact that he was about to come into a large some of money means that there should be a motive for murder. When the widow's son shows up the next day with very unkind things to say about Paul Alexis, Peter and Harriet get an inkling that this man would be the likeliest candidate for their murderer. The only problem is that the son has an airtight alibi for the time of the murder. In addition Harriet ran into a few other suspicious characters on the road to the beach immediately after the murder, none of which have been traced yet. So Lord Peter and Harriet have their work cut out for them in solving this caper.

In the meantime the two of them indulge in some wonderful flirtation and witty banter, which only gets interrupted at one point when Lord Peter reminds Harriet to be careful what she says because even though her heart isn't involved, his is, and she thus has the capacity to hurt him much more deeply than he could ever hurt her. In Have His Carcase we get a glimpse of both what a good team Lord Peter and Harriet of them make at crime-solving, and of how much fun they can have together when Harriet lets her guard down. By the end of the book, however, it becomes clear that Harriet still has a lot of issues to work out and is not comfortable with the idea of a romantic relationship.

I must now admit that this is my least favorite of the four books in this series because it lacks the depth that the others have and instead tries to concentrate more on the murder itself. This is not to say that the murder in itself isn't any good. On the contrary, it's quite ingenious and baffling, and it only loses my interest at the part where Lord Peter and Harriet try to solve a cipher, a passage which is both overly long and impossible to follow. So the murder does well, and the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet is delightful, but I still cannot excuse the absence of the introspection that elevates the other books beyond the pack of common murder mysteries. Fortunately the next book in the series more than makes up for this one's weakness.

Still, however, this book is delightful and well worth reading. A good entry to the Wimsey/Vane series, even if it's not as strong as the others.

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