I love detective stories, but it’s not actually the detective work in them that moves me. The fixed points of a classic whodunit, especially during the 1920s and 30s the ‘golden age’ of this kind of fiction, act as a frame onto which the best writers can project something else. For me, details like the victim, suspects, alibis, clues, footprints and so on are there as background. Like all formal boundaries, it’s when writers use them as an opportunity to colour outside the lines that things get interesting.
Dorothy L. Sayers is best known as a writer of detective fiction, although her work as a theologian and a translator is also worthy of note. She created a popular sleuth in Lord Peter Wimsey and cantered him through a variety of different scenarios over eleven different novels. In each book, she has a bigger story to tell than just one about a dead body. In one novel she’s really writing about codes and campanology; in another it’s war and post-traumatic stress. She never returns to the same theme twice. There’s no cosy repetition in her work. Each book reads to me like an intellectual or philosophical query, which, once resolved, can be satisfactorily filed away.
Busman’s Honeymoon is the final full-length work to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. It began life as a play written by Sayers in collaboration with her friend the historian Muriel St Clare Byrne, which was first performed in 1936. Sayers wrote the subsequent novelisation by herself, drawing heavily on the plot and characters she and Byrne had evolved together. As a result, there’s a definite theatricality to the murder mystery plot in the resulting novel. It has perhaps one of the most visually satisfying solutions of any whodunit I’ve ever encountered.
The subtitle that Sayers gave this book is where its appeal lies for me, though – ‘A Love Story with Detective Interruptions’. As the title indicates, it covers the honeymoon taken by Wimsey and his new wife Harriet Vane, herself a detective novelist. They’ve chosen to spend it at an Elizabethan manor house in the countryside, eschewing more fashionable overseas trips in favour of convenience and anonymity. The hoped-for domestic bliss is blighted not just by a murder, but by more prosaic concerns like unswept chimneys and a lack of hot water.
What this book is really about, then, is two obstinate and mercurial people learning how to live with each other. Amid the domestic inconveniences, including the corpse in the cellar, Harriet and Peter thrash out what it means to be equal partners when absolutely nothing about their circumstances is equivalent.
‘This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all,’ Harriet muses just after the grisly discovery is made. ‘Being preposterously fond of a person doesn’t prevent one from hurting him unintentionally.’
I think Sayers just put the murder in to trick people into reading what is actually a very perceptive treatise about marriage and cohabitation. She captures something that is so rare to find portrayed well on the page: the serendipitous fusion of the mundane and the transcendent into a true love story.
Image © Geralt