Saturday, May 10, 2014

Dorothy Sayers, Have His Carcase


Opening Passage:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Summary: Unfortunately for her, while Harriet Vane is getting away from things on a walking tour, on which she hopes to write her next mystery novel, she happens upon a dead body (a man with his throat slit by an old-fashioned shaving razor) on a rock called the Flat-Iron, by the seashore, during the rising tide. She has the presence of mind to get a good look at the body and take pictures, and then goes for help. Because she's out in the middle of nowhere, it takes a while to get to someplace she can report it, and by that point the body has been washed away.

If solving a mystery is straightforward, it doesn't usually make for much in the way of detective story, so stories in the mystery genre are usually designed as obstacle courses; they are structured around impediments or obstacles to finding the truth. Here we have our first major obstacle or impediment: we know someone has died, but for most of the book there is no body. The second major obstacle will be a lack of information about why the man, who turns out to be man of Russian background paid by a hotel to dance with women who need partners, was at the Flat-Iron at all. The third major obstacle will be that even when more information is uncovered, every hypothesis that takes into account most of the evidence runs aground on the key issue of time of death. In addition, we have various minor obstacles: unreliable or untrustworthy witnesses, the difficulty of tracing certain key items, and even, eventually, a letter written in code.

Evidence is a major issue in this book, which is why every chapter has the word 'evidence' in the title. One of the things Sayers does very skillfully is manage to make each new piece of evidence change the complexion or character of all the previous evidence, so that every new point of evidence does not require just some slight modification of one's interpretation of events, but shifts the entire tendency of the evidence considerably. And the evidence is not all physical; the single most important piece of evidence in the book, the one that suddenly makes all the other evidence snap together properly, is not itself something directly discovered, but something that has to be inferred from the convergence of several other pieces of evidence.

Storywise, the book is funnier than I remember it being. Sayers has some quiet mockery of mystery writers like herself, and some humorous interactions between characters, and some rather sarcastic presentations of the foibles of Englishmen and Englishwomen. Probably the funniest part of the book is when Bunter has to tail a man in London.

This is also a Lord Peter & Harriet Vane story, so we get the romantic side of things. The book is in many ways very concerned with sexual issues -- the dead man is a gigolo about to marry a very wealth woman, the woman's son is a little more handy with the ladies than is exactly respectable, illegitimacy and genealogy play major roles, interaction between men and women comes up repeatedly, and, of course, we have Lord Peter trying to get Harriet to marry him. The events of the book occur 1931-ish; at this point, people are playing fast and loose with things and social standards of sexual propriety are in a serious state of deterioration. This ends up being more of an occasion and complication of the crime than a direct cause of it, but it is a nearly constant background.

Favorite Passage:

"Then your verdict is that deceased came to his end by cutting his own throat."

"Yes, sir." (A further consultation.) "We should like to add as we think the police regulations about foreigners did ought to be tightened up, like, deceased being a foreigner and suicides and murders being unpleasant in a place where so many visitors come in the summer."

"I can't take that," objected the harassed coroner. "Deceased was a naturalised Englishman."

"That don't make no difference," said the juror, sturdily. "We do think as the regulations ought to be tightened up none the more for that, and that's what we all say. Put it down, sir, as that's our opinion."

"There you are," said Wimsey, "that's the breed that made the Empire. When empire comes in at the door, logic goes out at the window...." (p. 252)

Recommendation: Not Sayers's strongest work, but excellent nonetheless. The major difficulty in reading it, I think, is that many of the innovative features Sayers introduces here would end up being copied in one way or another by other writers, so it can come across as more of a typical mystery story than it actually is, unless you put yourself in a fresh mindset. But even if you find that difficult, many of the character interactions are worth reading on their own. Highly recommended.


Quotations from Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase, Haper & Row (New York: 1986).


  1. MrsDarwin10:37 AM

    As it turned out, I didn't have this one on my shelf (so I read Whose Body? instead) and it goes without saying that the library didn't have it, but when you mentioned that the body's throat was slit, I suddenly recalled the whole plot and solution.

  2. branemrys3:36 PM

    It's definitely one of those that is easily remembered if you come across it once.


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