Sayers, Dorothy L. Have His Carcase.

NY: Harper & Row, 1932.

In terms of pure detection-ism, this is one of the author’s best books featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, debonair aristocrat and talented amateur sleuth, in partnership with Harriet Vane, successful writer of mystery novels, whom Wimsey has been pursuing doggedly since saving her from the gallows. Harriet is taking a break from work by way of a walking tour along the southwest coast and by purest accident she discovers the body of a bearded young man with a profusely bleeding cut throat atop a large stone slab on the beach below the road.

Being her, she whips out her camera and documents the scene, knowing the tide is coming in and that the body will be gone before she can summon help. She gathers up the razor that appears to be the instrument of destruction, and the hat the corpse was wearing, and then off she goes to fetch the cops from the nearest small town. She soon discovers the man was a professional dancer (ballroom-type) and gigolo at a nearby resort hotel, and that the police assume the victim must be a suicide. But he doesn’t seem to have had any reason to do away with himself; in fact, he was about to marry a much older woman with lots of money. Then Wimsey (who keeps a close eye on anything involving Harriet) turns up to lend a hand, whether she wants the assistance or not, and the two decide it must be a murder — if only because that would suit them better, being more interesting than suicide.

Some authors seem to concentrate on one or another of the three main ingredients of a good murder mystery — plot, characters, and narrative style — but Sayers is one of the few who was consistently top-drawer in all three. The plot this time quickly becomes highly complex with a relatively large number of key characters and numerous red herrings — so much so that even our two detectives have to make up lists and charts to keep everything straight. It’s a useful device for the reader, too, and there’s also a delightful sequence involving the solving of a playfair cipher. At the same time, the characters are fully formed and fascinating — and not only Peter and Harriet, but Antoine, Inspector Umpelty, Mrs. Weldon, and the gold-digging Miss Leila Garland. But on top of all that, there’s the author’s quotation-laden dialogue, her use of subtle implication instead of bald description (which often makes you pause and consider again what you’ve just read), and her gently sardonic jabs at British types and cultural assumptions. And the solution to the whole thing was not one I expected, even though it has (eighty years later) become something of a cliché. Sayers didn’t write nearly enough books about Lord Peter Wimsey to satisfy me.

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Published in: on 16 March 2011 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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