What would you do if you came across the body of a man with his throat cut, so recently dead that the still-liquid blood is running in a glistening stream down the side of the rock he is lying on?
This is the situation facing Harriet Vane in the opening chapter of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers. Harriet, Sayer’s alter ego and a fictional writer of crime fiction, is on a solitary walking tour of the southern English coast, having finished one novel and not yet ready to start the next. The corpse and its perch are below the high-tide line, and the tide is coming in. Harriet, being a sensible sort, takes several photographs of the corpse and the footprints leading to the rock—hers and the dead man’s are the only ones visible—retrieves the razor responsible for the deed, and sets off to summon the police. (Sayers was writing in the 1930s. There were no cell phones, even landlines were uncommon along a sparsely populated region of the coast, Harriet was on foot, and the nearest town was eight miles away. The corpse was carried away by the tide before she was able to reach the police. If she hadn’t taken pictures they might not have believed her story.)
Have His Carcase is a classic plot-driven story from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. It is slower moving and more complex, plot-wise, than most mysteries being published now, but many people still enjoy those mysteries for the puzzles they present. Sayers plays by the rules, giving us the clues to match wits with Lord Peter Wimsey and the police as they seek answers to questions: Is Paul Alexis’ death suicide or murder? And if murder, who did it? We discover early on that there is a someone who had good reason to want Alexis dead, and he has been acting suspiciously, but the investigators can’t figure out how he could have had a hand in a murder. In fact, the more they dig, the more they seem to solidify his alibi.
I first read Have His Carcase decades ago, shortly after reading Gaudy Night, where Sayers shifts her focus and delves more deeply into character, making Vane and Wimsey much closer to living, breathing people. Compared to that gem, Have His Carcase was a disappointment. I have reread Gaudy Night several times since, but only recently picked up Have His Carcase for the second time. I admit to being pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. Not as good as Gaudy Night, but fine in its own right. I only have two quibbles with it:
- There is a chapter describing, in eye-glazing detail, how Wimsey and Vane crack a cipher. If you’re keen on ciphers, you can get the gist of it in a few pages. If you’re not, the entire chapter can be skipped without missing anything important.
- The exchanges between Wimsey and Vane are entertaining, as one might expect. I just wish there were more of them. In fact, after a strong beginning, focusing on Harriet as an active and intelligent participant in the investigation, she rather fades from view. By the end, the focus has shifted to Lord Peter, and he ultimately unravels exactly what did happen with Harriet listening. Sigh.
I mentioned a strong beginning. The opening paragraph has to be one of my all-time favourites:
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.
Audience: Adult or older teens. No sex or bad language. There is a bit of gore (Alexis did get his throat cut) but the act itself takes place offscreen.