Review: Have His Carcase

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Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper, 2012 (originally published 1932).

Summary: While on a walking tour of the seacoast around Devon, Harriet Vane finds a man whose throat has been slit recently on some rocks. Lord Peter Wimsey eventually joins her and they find clues aplenty and possible suspects, yet none appears to have done it.

After being found innocent of poisoning a former love interest, with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane embarks on a walking tour of the Devon seacoast. This particular day finds her on the road from Lesston Hoe to Wilvercombe, a seaside resort favored by elderly women. She detours to the beach for a snatch of reading and some lunch and dozes off. She wakens to a cry shortly after 2 pm. On waking she explores the beach further and spots something that looks like a man sleeping on a flat rock by the shore. As she approaches, she finds that it is a man, but he is not sleeping, but dead, of a slit throat with a razor lying at the base of the rock. The tide is rising, she is several miles distant from the nearest town, and the rock and body will soon be submerged. She carefully examines the body, finding the blood liquid and not clotted, pointing to a recent murder. Perhaps the cry she thought was a bird was this man’s last cry. She takes a number of pictures and collects the razor and sets off to find help and report the murder.

After numerous detours, she makes it to Wilvercombe, reports the dead body, and as a shrewd writer building a reputation, leaks the story to the press. Because of this, Lord Peter Wimsey learns of her whereabouts, and comes to help explore what the authorities believe a suicide of a Russian emigre’, Paul Alexis.  Both Vane and Wimsey think otherwise and come across a number of clues that raise questions. Why did he take his life when he was engaged to a rich widow? Why did he by a two way ticket to the town nearest the rock where he was found, and why did he go there? Who was the mysterious Mr. Martin camping near the beach? What about Mr. Bright, the barber who had “provided” the razor that slit Alexis throat? Who was he really? Why was there a ring recently placed in the rock where Alexis died? Why did Alexis convert his savings to gold sovereigns, found in a waist belt on his dead body? How did the horse in the meadow near where Martin camped lose its shoe? Who was the mysterious woman, ‘Feodora,’ in the photo found on Alexis body? What was the role of the rich widow’s son, a struggling landholder, in all of this, despite his alibi? What was the content and significance of the letter in cipher found in Alexis’ pocket?

Each chapter adds new evidence yet seems to bring Wimsey, Vane, and the authorities no closer to a solution. Suicide, if not the best explanation seems the most convenient. Or perhaps Mrs. Weldon’s explanation that he was knocked off by some “mysterious Bolsheviks” is not so incredible after all. None of the other suspects could possibly have been at the rock at the time of the murder.

Nor does all their sleuthing bring them any closer together, despite Wimsey’s repeated “proposals”, which seemed an annoying distraction not only to Vane, but also this reader. Nevertheless, it is great good fun to see these two amateur detectives piecing together the puzzle of this mystery. And one can always hope for the future.

Along the way, we perhaps get a bit of social commentary as well. The women entertained by gigolos at the resorts make us reckon with the sadness of wealth without people to share it or a purpose to live for other than self-indulgence. One readily understands the eagerness of both Vane and Wimsey to clear out when it is all over.

Take this one to the beach or into a comfy hammock and enjoy!

 

Review: Strong Poison

strong-poison

Strong PoisonDorothy L. Sayers. New York: HarperCollins, 2012 (originally published 1930).

Summary: Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter Wimsey believes she is innocent despite damning evidence and sets about to prove it.

Harriet Vane is awaiting the jury’s verdict. She is on trial for murdering a former lover, Philip Boyes after breaking off their relationship. Both are authors, Vane as a mystery writer the more successful. Her current novel concerns poisoning by arsenic and in her research she obtained samples of arsenic under assumed names. Following several meetings with her, Boyes suffered gastric distress. After going away for his health, he returns, and after dining with his cousin Norman Urquhart, he visits Harriet one more time to plead his case. That night, he falls terribly ill with gastric distress, of which he dies four days later. After a nurse’s suspicions are made known, an autopsy uncovers arsenic as the cause of death.

The cousin seems to have an airtight alibi–the two had shared the same food and drink, some of which Boyes himself had prepared. Hence Vane is the only plausible suspect with means, motive, and opportunity. Yet in the end, the jury comes back with a “hung” verdict. Wimsey takes an interest in the case, believing her innocent, and uses the reprieve to investigate. He focuses on Urquhart, whose alibi seems just a bit too perfect.

This leads to what is the most amusing part of the story as Miss Climpson and her typing agency, supported by Lord Peter, go undercover. Miss Murchison goes to work in Urquhart’s office. And Miss Climpson cultivates a spiritualist interest in the caregiver of wealthy old Cremorna Garden, an infirm relative of Urquhart and Boyes. And of course, the ever-resourceful Bunter befriends the household staff of Urquhart.

Time is winding down. Suspicions are confirmed. But will Wimsey get the evidence needed to exonerate Harriet? And how will she respond to Lord Peter’s proposal of marriage?

This is all great, good fun in what seemed to me one of Sayers’ fastest paced mysteries. Sayers introduces in Vane a strong female character who makes one wonder if she is modeled after Sayers herself. She inserts an egalitarian interest as Detective Parker becomes engaged to Lady Mary, Wimsey’s younger sister, with his full support. All wrapped up in a great story.

 

 

Review: Clouds of Witness

clouds-of-witness

Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (originally published 1926).

Summary: Lord Peter is summoned to find out the truth concerning the death of Denis Cathcart, for which his brother Gerald is facing a murder trial before the peers of the realm.

Lord Peter Wimsey, just returned from a jaunt in France, is informed by his man Bunter that he might want to be off to Riddlesdale, the family home. It seems that his brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on the charge of murder. The facts are these. Peter’s sister is engaged to Captain Denis Cathcart and is visiting Lady Mary, his betrothed. Now Cathcart is dead of a gunshot wound from Gerald’s revolver, and Mary finds Gerald over the body on a garden path as she comes down at 3 a.m., saying she has heard a shot.

Earlier that evening, Gerald received a letter from an old friend accusing Cathcart of being a card sharp. This is just about the ultimate offense among gentlemen and so Gerald confronts Cathcart in what ends up to be an angry exchange of words. Cathcart, who was planning to ditch Lady Mary, storms off. Gerald tries to get to sleep but cannot and gets up about an hour later, goes out, apparently wanders for several hours, and claims that he was returning and finds the body. But his gun is found nearby, and the evidence is sufficiently damning for the police to arrest Gerald. And Gerald does nothing to help himself, remaining silent about his whereabouts that evening. It doesn’t look good for the Duke of Denver.

Enter Lord Peter, who believes from the start that his brother couldn’t possibly be capable of such an act. And it doesn’t add up. Cathcart is leaving Mary and so no further intervention is needed. Yet the case seems open and shut. But some things don’t add up. There are conflicting reports of when the shot was fired–11:40 p.m. and 3 a.m. There are size 10 footprints that do not belong to any of the party. The window to the den was pried, even though the door to the garden had been left open. There is a diamond broach of a cat left by the body, but the woman with Cathcart when it was purchased does not fit Mary’s description. And there is the unfriendly Grimethorpe, and his exceedingly attractive wife, who seem to know something important.

Parker heads off to Paris, and Lord Peter takes a perilous plane trip to America and back, tracking down the clues. The trial before the peers of England opens, and Lord Peter has not returned and a terrible winter storm lies in his flight path across the Atlantic.  Will he make it in time (will he make it at all?) and will his evidence exonerate his brother and reveal how Cathcart died?  I will leave that for you to discover.

This is only the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales. I felt Sayers was still developing her craft, but already we see the development of the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter, and Parker, and their relationships. The description of the trial by Gerald’s peers, other Lords of England, is fascinating. Already, this is good writing, and I commend reading this before later numbers because it only gets better!

[A note on editions. This book is now in public domain and is now available in very inexpensive digital versions, one of which I downloaded. There were passages missing (noted) apparently from a quickly scanned version. From other reviews, I gather the current print edition may not be better. Open Road generally releases high quality digital versions. This one includes an illustrated biography of Sayers with photographs from the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. Older print versions may also be found at second hand stores or online sellers.]

Review: Whose Body?

whose body

Whose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper Collins, 1923. (Link is for trade paperback version.)

Summary: A body found in Thipps bathroom, a missing financier. Two cases that Lord Peter and his valet, Bunter, are called into simultaneously, apparently disparate, ultimately connected.

Imagine walking into your bathroom to discover a body in your tub with nothing on but a pair of pince-nez glasses. That is the unusual scenario that greets the retiring architect Thipps, who lives with his mother in a flat in Battersea. Thipps mother and Lord Peter’s are friends and so he is called in to investigate in the very first of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Then the unimaginative police Inspector Suggs arrests both Mr.Thipps and their maid Gladys on suspicion of the murder.

Shortly thereafter, his friend Parker, a Scotland Yard man, drops by to discuss the case, which he became involved with because he thought the man might be missing Jewish financier, Reuben Levy. Apart from a superficial resemblance, he is not. As best as they can tell, he was a workman who died from a blow to the back of his neck, who had been shaved, barbered and manicured and given the glasses post-mortem, and placed in the tub after being let down from the roof through the bathroom window.

The two cases seem unconnected until it is learned Levy was inquiring of directions to a famed physician’s residence late in the evening before the body was found in Thipps bathroom. An odd coincidence, and perhaps no more than that but one that will place both Parker and Lord Peter in peril, and awaken memories of Lord Peter’s World War I battle experiences, an early example in literature of the description of what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While I did not feel the writing was quite as polished as later writings and that Lord Peter seems overly silly at times, the characters of Lord Peter and Bunter are already well-drawn, with the fascinating element of Lord Peter’s war service, apparently dilettante life, and his simultaneous fascination and reluctance toward detective work. Bunter appears as the ever resourceful and somewhat independent-minded valet, the perfect companion to assist Lord Peter in his adventures. One of the most hilarious passages is Bunter’s account of plying of the famous physician’s, Lord Julian Freke’s man with Wimsey’s alcohol and cigars, very good alcohol and cigars at that. And there is a fascinating passage in which Wimsey questions a medical student about his activities a week before, that he swears he can’t remember, and the systematic questions that lead to a detailed recollection of events.

A good read in its own right, Whose Body? also heralds the promise of the other “Lord Peter Wimsey” mysteries, fourteen in all. If you’ve never discovered them and love mysteries, you should try them. And as a bonus, copyright has expired in the U.S. on Whose Body? and so it is available in at least two e-book versions on Amazon currently for $0.99 and for free on Feedbooks (in the U.S.). So if you like to start your mystery series at the beginning, here is an inexpensive way to explore the first of a series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, even though set in pre-World War II England.

[Also reviewed on Bob on Books: Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors.]

Review: The Nine Tailors

The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1966.

Summary: Lord Peter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul due to a driving mishap, later is enlisted to solve the mystery of the death of an unidentified man, whose body is found buried atop the grave of a recently deceased woman. The “nine tailors” refers to the nine tolls of a bell when an adult man has died, after which the years of his life are tolled.

Lord Peter Wimsey suffers a driving mishap on the unfamiliar roads near Fenchurch St. Paul, in the fen country of East Anglia, on New Year’s Eve, and is forced to find refuge with the somewhat absent-minded village rector, Venables and his wife. Venables is a change ringer and the church has an impressive set of bells. Wimsey ends up taking the place of Will Thoday, taken ill with influenza and participates in ringing the bells for nine hours to ring in the New Year.

While awaiting the repairs on his car, Lady Thorpe dies and Wimsey learns that sad tale of the Thorpe house, whose fortunes were impaired by the theft of an emerald necklace from a house guest, Mrs. Wilbraham, whose loss was made good by Henry Thorpe. The butler, Deacon, and a London accomplice, Cranton are found guilty of the crime, but the emeralds are never found. Both went to prison, but Deacon’s body was supposedly discovered in a pit after a prison escape.

During the intervening four months, Henry Thorpe also takes ill. Daughter Hillary, dealing with impending loss, ascends the bell tower one day and finds a scrap of paper covered with unusual writing that turns out to be a cipher for the location of the missing emeralds. When Henry dies, he is to be buried in his wife’s grave, which when opened is found to hold another, unidentified body, missing its hands and with the face smashed in. Rector Venables calls in Wimsey to help solve the mystery of this death. And mysterious it is, not only because the man in this grave cannot be identified for lack of fingerprints, but also for how he died. Neither the rope with which he was bound, nor the injuries were the cause of death.

Wimsey’s investigations take him to London and to France, where he encounters the widow of the man in the grave. There is more to be learned of both Deacon and Cranton, and also the involvement of both Will and James Thoday. What did Potty Peake, the village simpleton, witness of the mysterious man’s death? And what will the mysterious scrap of paper found by Hillary Thorpe reveal of the hiding place of the necklace?

Sayers takes a risk in spending so much time in the book on the practice of bell-ringing and yet the bells are an integral part of the plot, including the mysterious man’s death. She also captures the ethos of the fen country of East Anglia where the story is set. Yet, the mystery is a favorite of many readers. According to Wikipedia, Sinclair Lewis judged it the best of his four “indispensables.”

The potentially tedious bell-ringing material is interspersed with methodical police Superintendent Blundell, spunky Hillary Thorpe, and the amusingly absent-minded Rector and his capable wife, who tend to both the spiritual and physical life of their parish, acting with aplomb when faced with the flooding of the fens at the end of the book. Of course, Lord Peter occupies center stage, with his faithful sidekick Bunter, as he unravels the mystery while playing mentor to the orphaned Hillary. No cold detective, this man, who discovers as he unravels the truth, the difficult and delicate work of exposing basically decent people caught up in a bad business. Sayers gives us an intricate, well-crafted, and winsomely human mystery.