Friday, October 16, 2009

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

Concluding the Lord Peter Wimsey novels with the marriage and honeymoon of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, Busman's Honeymoon is a delightful combination of romance and detective work. Sayers combines these two usually disparate genres seamlessly and quite successfully. She comments 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." I enjoyed both aspects of the novel, for the love story lends a much more personal view of Lord Peter and Harriet, while the mystery is full of interesting characters, or suspects as the case may be.

Thus, it is inconvenient to the characters, but perhaps not surprising to the readers, that Lord Peter and Harriet find a corpse in the cellar of the house they have purchased in the country where they had hoped to spend a quiet honeymoon away from the press. Such quiet is not to be theirs, however, with a troop of villagers, hired help, detectives, and reporters who all seem to have an opinion to offer, their own sad story to tell, or simply a desire to be a part of the action. Under these circumstances, Peter and Harriet's strengths and weaknesses are both displayed in stark reality, and they learn more about themselves and each other in a few days than they had discovered over the five or six years of their previous acquaintance.

The characters in this novel are exceptional: there is the Superintendent of police who parries literary quotes with Peter and Harriet for several pages (an interchange which will probably leave most 21st century readers thinking they are shamefully uneducated, at least that was my feeling); there is Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess, who is just delightful and the perfect mother-in-law to Harriet who lost her mother years before; and then there is Bunter, Lord Peter's faithful butler who always seems to know the right thing to do or say no matter the situation, even one as uncertain as having a wife added to the household.

And then the love-interest truly is the heart of the story - what poetry, what beauty, what raw emotion and brutal honesty, what insights into male/female psyches and relations, as these few quotations will show:

On the thought that their wedding night was tarnished by the fact that the corpse had been in the cellar unbeknownst to them, Peter says, "Nothing that you or I have done is any insult to death - unless you think so, Harriet. I should say, if anything could sweeten the atmosphere that wretched old man left behind him, it would be the feeling we - the feeling I have for you, at any rate, and yours for me if you feel like that. I do assure you, so far as I am concerned, there's nothing trivial about it." (122)

"He appeared satisfied, but Harriet cursed herself for a fool. This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all. Being preposterously fond of a person didn't prevent one from hurting him unintentionally. She had an uncomfortable feeling that his confidence had been shaken and that this was not the end of the misunderstanding...He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all. And her intelligence did agree with him. It was her own feelings that didn't seem to be quite pulling in double harness with her intelligence." (131-132)

"Peter accepted the tea and drank it in silence. He was still dissatisfied with himself. It was as though he had invited the woman of his choice to sit down with him at the feast of life, only to discover that his table had not been reserved for him. Men, in these mortifying circumstances, commonly find fault with the waiter, grumble at the food and irritably reject every effort to restore pleasantness to the occasion. From the worst exhibitions of injured self-conceit, his good manners were sufficient to restrain him, but the mere fact that he knew himself to be in fault made it all the more difficult for him to recover spontaneity. Harriet watched his inner conflict sympathetically. If both of them had been ten years younger, the situation would have resolved itself in a row, tears and reconciling embraces; bur for them, that path was plainly marked, NO EXIT. There was no help for it; he must get out of his sulks as best he could. Having inflicted her own savage moods upon him for a good five years, she was in no position to feel aggrieved; compared with herself, indeed, he was making a pretty good showing." (190-191)

Other passages are too lengthy to quote here, but it is worth reading this novel if only to contemplate the views of marriage and men and women's roles that are implicit in the story and dialogue. I found the tension between the individual and the unity of marriage as played out by these two highly intelligent characters to be very interesting, see especially pp. 307-308 and 324-325.

Another unique aspect of this novel is that we see the aftermath and how Lord Peter is affected after figuring out whodunit. While most mystery novels close with the pieces falling into place and perhaps the arrest of the criminal, the reader is simply left to assume that justice will be done, and the detective walks away brushing off his hands and thinking of a job well done. Lord Peter, however, is struck with intense remorse over the fact that his skills of deduction will cost a man, even a guilty man, his life. In the short time (four weeks at most) between the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of a murderer [The British system is far more efficient than the American one], Lord Peter repeatedly visits the prisoner and spends a sleepless night before his execution. Harriet loyally but quietly supports him through his inner agony, waiting for him to share this part of the detective's life with her - a wait that ends with the most beautiful and poignant phrase of the book:

[Peter says], "I hate behaving like this. I tried to stick it out by myself."
"But why should you?" [Harriet replied]...
"It's damnable for you too. I'm sorry, I'd forgotten. That sounds idiotic. But I've always been alone."
"Yes, of course. I'm like that, too. I like to crawl away and hide in a corner."
"Well," he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, "you're my corner and I've come to hide." (400)

Well, I started in the middle and have now finished half of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I suppose it's time to go back and start properly at the beginning with Whose Body?.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

(I'm kind of catching up here, can you tell?)

I have this one on my shelf as well but haven't read it. And I've no excuse for it really. I've had this book for ages. You make it sound like something I should get to sooner, rather than later. ARG so many books....