This is my second entry for Rich’s monthly Crimes of the Century challenge, which he hosts at his blog Past Offences. This is a book I have been keen to re-read since last month when I talked about it for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ theme of Love and Murder. I couldn’t remember much about it, except that I remembered loving it and was therefore surprised when others didn’t seem quite so keen on it. Due to my very vague memories I did begin to wonder whether I was remembering it through rose tinted spectacles, as at the time I originally read it I hadn’t read many other golden age detective fiction writers.
For those who have equally hazy memories like mine the book begins with Harriet and Peter’s wedding and they plan to have their honeymoon at a house called Talboys, which is situated near to where Harriet lived when she was a girl. However when they arrive things do not go to plan, culminating in the discovery of the previous occupant, Noakes, dead on the cellar stairs. His death unsurprisingly is murder. Noakes was far from popular, having a grasping way with money and not above swindling his nearest and not so dearest, as well as his employees. His death further reveals the financial straits he was in. It truly is a busman’s honeymoon for Peter and Harriet.
The subtitle for this novel; ‘a love story with detective interruptions,’ indicates in a way this novel’s intention of pushing the mystery novel to its limits. For some, Sayers pushes the genre too far, yet when this book was published many reviewers didn’t seem to have a problem with this, with the Times Literary Supplement writing, ‘this, then, as a love story and a detective story, and much besides, is the Sayers mixture as never so successfully before.’ Whilst Country Life wrote that ‘the detection […] is a flawless piece of work and The Times also points to Sayers bringing ‘her usual ingenuity to bear on the important problem of how the murder was committed.’ And having now re-read the book I do think this latter comment is fair as the how of this crime is unusual, yet its mechanism is hinted at by degrees in the book.
It was also great to re-read the address in the foreword by Sayers as I had completely forgotten it was included. The address thanks those who supported Sayers through the writing process and alludes to how the novel was the consequence of a play she wrote with Muriel St Clare Byrne. I love the part where Sayers writes that:
‘It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.’
Her way of reframing the focus of the novel, having the detective element as the intrusion, shows the journey her mystery writing had taken her on, as a decade earlier her views were decidedly different. This reframing also allows for a more naturalistic response from Peter and Harriet towards the ensuing investigation into Noakes’ death and I think this gave the story a much less artificial quality.
One of the reasons why I have enjoyed Sayers work so much is because of her writing style and her turn of phrase, which can often bring a smile to my lips. Some of my favourite lines from this story, which I think earned such a title through their bizarreness include lines such as: ‘If the young woman has brains and bowels, she will suit well enough’ and ‘his thoughts revolving silently in this squirrel-cage of mystification.’ The Dowager Duchess who is definitely a fictional character you wished really existed also offers a number of funny phrases, such as when she is talking about her son, Peter: ‘he’s just as vain and foolish as most men and not a chameleon to smell any sweeter for being trodden on. On consideration, think I meant ‘camomile.’’ At times I do have to admit that Sayers is a little uncomfortable about describing this next stage of Peter and Harriet’s relationship, when passions and feelings are more demonstrable, but in the main I just found these instances quite amusing really, such as when Harriet finds Peter’s spine ‘enslaving’.
The strength of her writing style also comes across in the strong opening of Busman’s Honeymoon, as the first 30 or so pages are in an epistolary or diary format. This allows the reader to get quite a number of different perspectives on Harriet and Peter’s wedding, as well as on how they are viewed as individuals. It was quite surprising to find one character call Peter the ‘chilliest prig’ and like ‘a chattering icicle in an eyeglass.’ This opening style seemed to me to be like a foretaste of The Wimsey Papers, which Sayers would go on to write in The Spectator two years later. The idea of the detective plot intruding into the narrative also begins in these introductory pages, as Bunter’s letter hints at something having gone wrong, yet is cut off, leaving the details to be given later on.
Being a fan of the Harriet and Peter relationship this book is probably special for me, simply because it answers that age old question for novel readers: What happened once they got married?, as so often books end at the alter and go no further. I definitely feel that Sayers captures the daunting nature of starting out in a marriage or a relationship effectively and the way it can leave your vulnerabilities more exposed. Sayers doesn’t make their relationship have a fairy tale like perfection, there are issues for Peter and Harriet to work through. A key issue for Sayers to resolve in this book is the power balance between her protagonists and there are moments where it does feel like Harriet is in a weaker or lower position. There is even a moment where Peter feels resentful towards her because she pulled him up on his jokey response to chicken killing, though I think this moment recoils back on Peter when he later has to face the fact that his investigative work will lead to a murderer being hung. It is at this point that Harriet gains a stronger position and has to support Peter whilst he goes through inner turmoil. But I think most of the teething problems in their relationship revolve around the fact they are embroiled in a murder investigation, as Peter is used to acting without consideration to others, an approach he now needs to alter. Yet on the whole I think these two work out their issues in quite a mature way and Harriet is against using feminine wiles and ‘matrimonial blackmail’ to get what she wants.
Re-reading this book also meant that I noticed this time round that there is a definite tension between beginning a new era and holding on to the past. In some ways Peter and Harriet’s marriage is symbolic of a new era, a merging of social classes and breaking from tradition. Yet a few days into being married to Peter, Harriet sees in him how comfortably he fits into a rural and older way of life. It is said that Harriet:
‘understood now why it was that with all his masquing attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of the friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves […] moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares’
Here Harriet seems to be reinforcing the image of the more traditional and predictable small village community, an image which was to change in the next few years, with mystery novels such as A Murder is Announced (1950), revealing that villagers were rapidly knowing less and less about their neighbours. Furthermore, there are some hints later on in Sayers’ novel which suggest that Harriet’s static image is already beginning to change, as it is mentioned that the most recent local squire is more of a weekender, who spends far more time in London and therefore is not hugely involved in local life. But for now, at any rate, in Peter, Harriet can find this older way of life, which she sums up in the line: ‘I have married England.’
I do admit so far I have definitely given more attention to the romance side of the novel, but fear not dear readers, (who are probably wondering whether this is still a mystery fiction blog), I am now going to talk about the detective work. Something which really stood out for me was how this murder investigation is treated much more seriously and the crime itself is not shown to be a light-hearted matter. There are some comic moments where Harriet and Peter play around with motives and there is nice parodying of Holmes deductions, but on the whole both these characters realise the gravity of the situation. We really get to feel the psychological impact of being involved in a murder case. Peter may say lines such as ‘whoever suffers, we must have the truth. Nothing else matters a damn,’ but nonetheless the destruction his actions cause take their toll on him. This book does not end when the killer is revealed, but continues further on and shows that the case does not end at that moment. It really interests me that Sayers does not end at the conventional moment of triumph, but instead shows this case to be a hard won victory and a victory which, albeit temporarily, breaks Peter. This was a brave decision on Sayers part, to have the final Wimsey novel end on such a troubling note. But I can’t help but admire it. I liked how in this mystery the how of the crime and the timings involved, in relation to witness testimony, are stressed as being more important than the motive, with Harriet and Peter proving this point by showing how easy it is to come up with motives for people.
So all in all I do have to admit that this book is perhaps a little overlong and the extended passages in French were rather beyond what I learnt at GCSE. It does not hold the perfection I once thought of it. Giving it 5/5 would rather smack of fandom blindness. However, that does not mean I did not enjoy it or would not read it again. There were many things I loved about it. I think Sayers does a cracking job at creating a lot of interest out of a relatively small amount of material, using a blocked chimney scenario to explore character personalities, as well as provide comedy and action. Bunter definitely deserves a mention as well, as I am sure we all want someone like him to help us organise our lives, always remembering the things we’ve forgotten about. Though it was also funny seeing Bunter lose his rag for the first time, over Mrs Ruddle upsetting the port. Couldn’t help but smile at this moment. This story is a delightful mixture of comedy and tragedy, thwarted and fulfilled love and light and dark and it is a shame that Sayers stopped writing Wimsey novels at this point. We can only guess what she could have gone on to do next, as in some ways the Peter and Harriet’s story isn’t quite finished yet in this book. I know Sayers would do some short stories later featuring them again and their children and of course there are the Jill Paton Walsh books (which I did enjoy on the whole when I originally read them), but it’s just not the same is it.
See also: Check out Les Blatt’s thoughts on this novel at Classic Mysteries.