Mystery writer Harriet Vane, recovering from an unhappy love affair and its aftermath, seeks solace on a barren beach - deserted but for the body of a bearded young man with his throat cut. From the moment she photographs the corpse, which soon disappears with the tide, she is puzzled by a mystery that might have been suicide, murder, or a political plot. With her dear friend Lord Peter Wimsey, she begins to investigate.
This book begins with Harriet, still somewhat shaken by the events of that book, and definitely not intending to comfort herself on the "manly bosom" of Wimsey even though he'd eagerly offer it. There's a feminist subtext there from the beginning I think I enjoyed all the more knowing this was published in 1932. The mystery from internal evidence seems set in the preceding year, in a time between wars where relations between the sexes had undergone a revolution. I found striking this passage in an early chapter regarding women in a ballroom in old-fashioned regalia:
The slender-seeming waists were made so, not by savage tight-lacing, but by sheer expensive dressmaking. Tomorrow, on the tennis court, the short, loose tunic-frock would reveal them as the waists of muscular young women of the day, despising all bonds. And the sidelong glances, the downcast eyes, the mock-modesty--masks only.... A quite different kind of womanliness--set on a basis of economic independence.
Harriet Vane is a very modern woman--and that's definitely part of the appeal. And Lord Peter Wimsey is a charmer, and underneath the upper-class dandy there's a keen mind--someone who could truly partner her even if she can't yet see it. The beginnings of attraction are hinted at here in her not quite being able to keep her mind off him, in noticing nicely broad shoulders and well-turned calves. There's a sharp wit and humor in the narrative that mostly keeps things bubbling along and since Harriet Vane is herself a mystery novelist, there is some sly twitting at the conventions of the genre.
If there's anything here not first rate, it's the mystery itself. Which isn't bad--I don't see yawing holes, but the convoluted scheme does rather strain credibility without quite having a Christie-worthy jaw-dropping resolution. But it did keep me guessing. Some parts dragged for me a bit--especially all the stuff about the ciphers. All in all in my opinion a much stronger novel than the first Wimsey, Whose Body? but not as wonderful as Gaudy Night, yet still an overall engaging read.
The language, settings and cultural mannerisms are interesting in displaying the character of 1920's England. The plot, though intricate, is frequently updated by the author in case the reader has lost a thread. Written by an author who shared her Victorian worldview through the thoughts and actions of her honest and courteous heros. A mystery of still enduring interest.
Bunter gets a chance to shine too, which I liked a lot. Of course, there was very little of Parker, which balanced that pleasure. I love all the recurring characters!
More interesting than Five Red Herrings, to me, by virtue of being more emotionally engaging. But both mystery plots were a wee bit impenetrable, with the missing information in each of them.
The plot: novelist Harriet Vane takes a walking vacation along the south coast of England to work on the plot of her latest murder mystery, but finds the body of a young man instead. Her suitor Lord Peter Wimsey is quickly on the scene, but the investigators are puzzled. All the signs seem to point to a particular perpetrator, but his alibi for the time of death is rock solid. Something is wrong with the picture--but what?
Having waded through Five Red Herrings, I now feel like I'm on the downhill slope of this reading marathon. And what delights are before me--Have His Carcase, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night are, imho, the Golden Age of the Wimsey books.
Sayers simply seems to hit her stride with Have His Carcase and the energy doesn't quit till Busman's Honeymoon, where Wimsey and Vane simply become too quotation-ridden to be believable. One of the beauties of Have His Carcase is the introduction of the inside of Harriet Vane's head, which is a delightfully down-to-earth counterpart to Wimsey's flights of fancy. She is practical, forthright and yet never overly wonderful--her insecurities and mistakes are laid bare for all to see, and she's definitely not always reasonable where Wimsey is concerned. The introduction of a fully-rounded character into the Wimsey books forces Sayers to make Wimsey himself more vulnerable, even as the list of his accomplishments stretches toward the exaggerated.
The only place where my attention flags a bit in this book is the long explanation of the code-cracking, although it is very clever and no doubt puzzle buffs must thoroughly enjoy it. I noticed, for the first time, that my 1977 edition was typeset the old-fashioned way, making the code grids rather wobbly. I'm so glad I kept it, because it reminds me of how books used to be before all this newfangled computer stuff came in. I would truly like to own the yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardbacks (the form in which I discovered the series, in my school library) but I imagine they are collector's items and priced accordingly.
If I thought really hard about this novel I would probably discover its flaws; Sayers herself cheerfully admitted that she screwed up sometimes. But I was too busy reading it...
What makes this a good book is not so much the mystery, but the growing relationship between Peter and Harriet. Sayers gives Harriet a distinct personality and style that nicely complement Peter's, and Peter begins to come down to earth a bit. There were contemporaneous complaints that he was losing his elfin charm, but Sayers rather sharply said that at his age, if he had elfin charm he should be locked in a lethal chamber. Watching the two of them adjust to each other, and watching their minds work and seeing how well their different styles mesh is simply a delight.
The story finds Harriet Vane, recently acquited of murder, on a walking vacation. Mystery has a way of following her, and she encounters a dead body on the beach. Was it suicide or murder? Knowing that the tide is about to come in, Harriet takes pictures and clues to preserve what she can, and searches out the local authorities. Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman detective, comes to Harriet's aid and also delves into the crime, a case of murder with a baffling array of suspects and alibis. Every clue and every alibi makes a strong case for suicide, but Wimsey knows it to be a murder, if only he could prove it.
"Have His Carcase" is a story with a lot on its plate; the wide cast of characters creates a web of further mystery and cluelessness around the death. This is all layered in with the flirtation between Wimsey and Vane, a delectable pairing of romance and comedy, as Harriet rebuffs Wimsey's marriage proposals at every turn. Sayers is perhaps almost too intelligent in her mysteries, giving her detectives almost unlimited knowledge on a wide range of topics. The chapters involving ciphers are particularly hard to decipher, but do little to distract from the excellent mystery at hand. And while the story does seem to go round and round, it comes full circle in the end.
Have His Carcase opens with the mystery writer Harriet Vane, who, on a walking tour, discovers a dead body lying on a rock. The murdered man is a Russian emigrant and a dancing teacher at a local hotel who may or may not have been associated with Bolsheviks. Naturally, Lord Peter is interested in the case, and he makes haste to join Harriet Vane to solve the mystery (with periodic marriage proposals). However, once the tide comes in, the body is swept out to see, leaving the two detectives with a mystery but no physical evidence.
Dorothy Sayers was the queen of sharp, smart mystery stories. On the surface they’re straightforward police procedurals that happen to have a rich dilettante as the detective. But her stories are much more than that—Sayers understands human motives better than most detective writers I’ve read. The Lord Peter Winsey series is better, I think, with the addition of Harriet, who is Lord Peter’s equal in terms of wit and intelligence. I love watching the banter and barely-concealed sexual tension between the two of them as they tried to solve the murder. Dorothy Sayers doesn’t insult her reader with endless exposition, or a scene at the ending in which the villain conveniently reveals all. She is a master of the genre because of her subtlety in writing.
What’s interesting about this case is the lack of physical evidence—if Harriet hadn’t seen the body and taken photographs, it’s almost as though the murder might not have taken place at all (if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a noise?). Have His Carcase is another really strong addition to this series, but if you’re new to the series, I’d try another one of her books first to gain more background on the recurring characters.
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.
The way Harriet and Peter interact is brilliant (and oh, how good it is to have Harriet saying no to Peter so determinedly, neither falling in love with him instantly because he's that perfect, nor agreeing to him to stop him pestering her which it is implied she did with her previous lover, nor playing him for a fool: she is as honest as she can be about how she feels and doesn't feel, and he doesn't expect or want to play on the clichés of gratitude and so on either), and their (sometimes strained) partnership as a crime-solving duo is awesome. Bunter gets some very good moments too, and the whole scenario is satisfyingly convoluted.
Granted, if you've read it before, you do get the urge to shake Peter for making certain assumptions, and the code-breaking part becomes even more boring, but overall, it stands up well to a second (or third) reading.
I find I skip the technical parts of detective stories like this (the railway timetable sections - though in this one it's several pages of deciphering secret letters) much as I used to skip the technical descriptions in Golden Age science fiction. Oh, Doc Smith, you were always a fast read!
Anyway, long passages of detail aside, there's the slow progress of a witty romance and a mystery I thought I'd got but there was always another ludicrous twist.
An entertaining puzzler that moves Harriet and Lord Peter’s relationship along. He is still throwing marriage proposals at her and she is still refusing but, the reader can’t escape that sparks are flying between these two and it is pretty obvious that the lady is on the cusp of falling in love. The mystery was intricate and inventive. The banter between Lord Peter and Harriet was crisp, funny and irresistible. These two characters are made to be together and I look forward to reading more about them.
I have enjoyed all of the Lord Peter mysteries but I would have to say Have His Carcase is my favorite one so far. This complex mystery combined with it’s charming romance made for a delightful read.