Friday, June 29, 2018

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

Over the last few weeks, I nibbled my way through Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers. Since re-reading (and falling in love with) Gaudy Night a couple of months back, I wanted to re-read this preceding book in the series in the hope of picking up some early appearances of the themes that crop up in Gaudy Night. Ultimately, I have to say that this book felt a lot less substantial so far as the themes go. But it was still a wonderfully clever and entertaining story.

Harriet Vane, the detective novelist last seen in Strong Poison trying to get clear of a charge of murder while fending off the goggle-eyed attentions of upper-class sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, is on a walking holiday on the south coast of England when she stumbles across a corpse atop a rock on the beach. With his throat slashed from ear to ear and a razor lying below his hand, the young bearded man lying there seems almost certainly a suicide - if it wasn't for the fact that he's wearing gloves.

Knowing that the tide will come in and carry the body away before she can make it to the nearest police station, Harriet does the best she can to investigate and photograph the body. Sure enough, by the time she finds help, the tide has come in and the body is gone. Now only Harriet's evidence remains to solve the question: did Paul Alexis, a young dancer of Russian extraction, really kill himself to avoid marrying the elderly Mrs Weldon? Or was he murdered - but if so, how?

Have His Carcase is another of the Dorothy Sayers novels I didn't properly appreciate when I first read it as a teenager (what a philistine). It's actually quite lengthy and complicated for a detective story - our sleuths discover so many complications among the various suspects and witnesses that the book must be about twice the length of your usual Agatha Christie mystery. By the end of the story, I had to wonder how much of the complicated plot really seemed credible. But that's beside the point, really. The intricacy of the plots and counter-plots is the whole delight of this novel: the central mystery is like one of those pictures that is two (or even three or four) different things at once, depending on how you look at them. When the final piece of the puzzle falls into place in the very last chapter, it's a wonderfully satisfying moment. I was actually quite surprised: I usually forget the final twists to detective stories, remembering instead the character interactions. But for me, the final twist was one of the most memorable things in this whole book. I remembered it quite clearly even more than ten years later.

Which is not to say that the character interactions aren't wonderful in this book. Not all the Peter Wimsey stories feature his emotionally scarred and prickly love interest Harriet, but their courtship makes up a sort of trilogy within the larger series, beginning with Strong Poison and continuing with this one before culminating with Gaudy Night (a fourth, Busman's Honeymoon, would deal with Peter and Harriet's first days of married life). Have His Carcase features Harriet prominently as a viewpoint character, and she and Peter banter and argue their way through the story in an entertaining fashion. 

One of my favourite things in Gaudy Night was its picture-perfect references to what it's like to be a novelist, and Have His Carcase had plenty of these moments as well. Harriet, a mystery novelist, now finds herself having to investigate a mystery of her own, and if Have His Carcase has a central theme, it would have to be about the relationship of fiction and life. In some ways, Harriet's work as a novelist equips her to investigate the mystery; in others, it fails her. As a novelist, she knows how she would arrange matters; but is this what has actually happened? The point is driven further home when we discover that the corpse, during life, was a voracious reader of Ruritanian-style romances. Sayers has fun satirising these implausible melodramas, but her touch is light enough that it takes a bit of thinking-over after the end of the story to realise that Have His Carcase is, among other things, rather a thoughtful discussion of the power of fiction. Paul Alexis's uncritical intake of literary trash makes him vulnerable. Harriet's stories, meanwhile, aren't necessarily a lot more substantial. They are entertaining popular fiction - but Harriet brings to them a clear-eyed acknowledgement that they only go so far as a guide to life. I think that's actually appropriate for a book that, like this one, strains belief with its sheer over-the-top complexity and cunning. Have His Carcase is a book about fiction that never forgets that it is fiction itself. 

Have His Carcase was a lot of fun, but like Gaudy Night and so many of Sayers' other novels, with its wonderfully real and believable characters, and its audaciously complicated plot, it stands head and shoulders above pretty much every other classic detective story you will ever read. Perfect for that time when you want to read a whodunit that can't be guessed within the first ten chapters.

Find Have His Carcase at Amazon, the Book Depository, or online as an ebook at The Faded Page.


F-18 said...

Gaudy Night is on my must re-read every year shelf. It's not only the culmination of Peter and Harriet's love story (with the best. ever. proposal!), but it's Sayers' love letter to Oxford.

I love all the Lord Peter mysteries (the short stories are every bit as good, too), but Gaudy Night is pretty special all on its own, even if a reader isn't a classic mystery fan, or hasn't read any Sayers previously.

Anonymous said...

Allow me to add a mention to the sort of coda short story, "Tall Boys". And to note we have been largely enjoying Jill Paton Walsh's completion and additions (but, idiotically, have yet to read 'The Wimsey Papers'!). And to add, how delightful Ian Carmichael's audiobooks of Sayers's Wimsey stories are.

David Llewellyn Dodds


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