My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Between the murders in The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcase, both of which take place in relatively remote locations, Dorothy Sayers’s work represents a warning to budding mystery writers: Don’t have your victims murdered in the middle of nowhere, because if you do, your detective will spend half his time fiddling with train schedules and road maps and things. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane spend so much time trying to trace the circuitous and improbable steps of their murderer that it all ends up making the entire plot seem fundamentally absurd. Even the final realization, which is brilliantly set up and carried out, feels like an anticlimax after so many chapters of characters agonizing about exactly how fast you could reasonably expect to ride a horse on a beach. Sayers seems to recognize this, with the police essentially throwing their hands up when confronted with the solution.
So the bad news, then, is that the mystery doesn’t quite work as a whole. The good news is that the character of Harriet Vane allows Sayers to comment on the various successes and failures of her story, and of detective stories in general, which is a fun little deconstructive element to bring into the work. She turns out to be helpful not just because of her considerable research into crime, but because amateur criminals who have gotten most of their understanding from detective novels are as likely to be copying her as coming up with plans of their own. The detective story has been self-referential nearly from the moment of its creation, but it’s nonetheless funny to watch Harriet use the laziness of the genre’s less-reputable authors to figure out the murderer’s thinking is fun to read.
And, of course, Harriet being the one to discover the body and involving herself in the case allows Sayers to develop the relationship between her and Lord Peter, to much better effect than Sayers managed in Strong Poison. In fact, it allows her to re-cast the less workable parts of the will-they/won’t-they in a new light. Peter’s sudden fixation on Harriet and desire to marry her seemed arbitrary and not very well thought-out; in the new book, it becomes a joke between them, with Lord Peter proposing to her at the end of nearly every conversation, and her always ending the conversation by cheerfully turning him down. There’s a sense of actual flirtation here, of the characters playfully dancing around a possibility that neither feels secure enough to fully commit to, and quick to withdraw if there’s even a slight misunderstanding between them. It’s alternately charming, aggravating, and funny in the vein of the best romantic comedies.
And it leads up to one of the cleverest twists on a love scene I’ve ever encountered this side of Tom Jones: there is a full chapter in which Lord Peter and Harriet are trying to figure out the decryption key for a coded message. Sayers shows the entire process, and while it initially feels like the sort of trademark over-explanation that caused her to create a full crossword puzzle for one story, as you read, you notice how the decryption progresses: slow and fumbling, at first, with several false starts and dead ends, gradually picking up speed as they explore new possibilities and throw out things that aren’t working, a noticeable uptick in excitement when Lord Peter manages to find the, um, “keyword,” and then, letters and words are puzzled out in a gradually escalating rhythm, ending in literal cries of joy from both participants as they bring the mystery to completion. It’s a well-constructed puzzle, a funny sex joke, and a literalized depiction of how the entangling of two minds can be as fun as the entangling of two bodies. Even when the murder mystery falls a bit flat, it’s clear that Sayers knows how to have fun.
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