Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fortnightly Book, April 27

The vulture's maw
Shall have his carcase, and the dogs his bones.

I've no idea exactly how busy the next two weeks will be, so it seems prudent to pick a re-read for the next fortnightly book. Since Mystery is a genre that hasn't been much represented in prior fortnights, I've settled on Dorothy Sayers's Have His Carcase. It is a Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane novel, usually considered one of the weaker ones, but it was the first one I grabbed, so we go with it. The title appears to be an example of the obscure hyper-association Lord Peter inherits from his mother: 'have his carcase' is a translation of habeas corpus, and also seems to be an allusion to Cowper's translation for the Iliad, and also represents the central plot conceit of the novel, which is that a murder has been committed but nobody knows where the body is. The connection to the actual Habeas Corpus Act is obviously a joke by Wimsey, in a conversation in which almost everything he says is some kind of joke, but some readers have been confused by it. Lord Peter often skips a step or half dozen in his side comments and jokes.

Dorothy Sayers was in advertising. She worked at an advertising agency for nearly decade, and designed quite a few very successful advertisement campaigns -- most notably the Guinness Toucan. If Wikipedia is to be believed, she is the original source of the phrase, "It pays to advertise!" She would, of course, set one of her Wimsey novels in the context of an advertising agency.

But it is, of course, as the first Queen of Crime that she is best remembered, with her Wimsey novels being considered, one and all, classics of the detective fiction genre. Her books are often based on interesting puzzles, but they are never merely puzzles; like some of the other early greats, she uses the genre conventions to explore complicated ethical issues. There's a timelessness to Sayers's strongest works, and that timelessness is a function of the thoughtfulness -- not just the thought, but the thoughtfulness -- she puts into them.

An interesting side note is that Edmund Wilson, the highly respected known today for his famously bad criticism of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, also turned his not-entirely-reliable sense of taste on detective fiction at several points, panning the entire genre. Nearly all the major names of the genre were attacked by him, including Sayers; he claimed that Sayers was not a good writer, but merely the most self-consciously literary author in a mostly sub-literary genre. (The Sayers novel he selected to attack was Nine Tailors, which is widely considered to be among the greatest works in the genre, and his assessment of it is about as accurate as his assessment of The Lord of the Rings. I also have that one on my shelves; it just happened not to come to hand.)

Every Wimsey novel is structured by a number of deliberate quirks. Have His Carcase has two that are especially notable. First, every chapter has the word 'evidence' in the title. The first four chapters, for instance, are:

1. The Evidence of the Corpse
2. The Evidence of the Road
3. The Evidence of the Hotel
4. The Evidence of the Razor

And the last two chapters are:

33. Evidence of What Should Have Happened
34. Evidence of What Did Happen

The other obvious quirk is that every chapter opens with an epigraph from the works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, one of Sayers's favorite poets. I don't know a great deal about Beddoes, but a lot of his poetry is about death and dying.

A bit of mood music -- a contemporary song that is mentioned, in passing, and somewhat sarcastically, in the book:

Marion Harris, "My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes." There are literally dozens of versions of this song from the 1930s; it was extremely popular, and, of course, popular music at the time was often still played live by bands and orchestras, rather than played everywhere in recorded versions as it is today. Debroy Somers is another famous version.


  1. MrsDarwin11:06 AM

    We've been reading Murder Must Advertise aloud in the evenings, and it's fabulous reading, let alone the mystery. Sayers has a witty, urbane style that shines in dialogue, but she's an incisive analyst of character too. Besides the murder plot, Murder Must Advertise is notable for the Whiffling Around Britain campaign: a minor subplot, non-essential to the action, but a delightful gem which shows what heights Lord Peter could have achieved if he'd only had a real job. The kids have become avid fans.

    I think we have Have His Carcase on the shelf in the library; I'll have to pull it down and read with you.

  2. branemrys11:29 AM

    From what I remember it's a fairly good one. It deals more directly than most of Sayers's other novels with sexual topics -- nothing crazy or blatant, of course, but you probably should keep the issue in mind if you were thinking about reading it with the kids. For instance, the word 'gigolo' comes up about ten jillion times; it technically just means a hired dancing partner, but even in Sayers's day it had some of the unsavory undertone.


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