My selection "From the Vault" this week may be a bit controversial with some fans - and some detractors - of Dorothy L. Sayers and her creations, Lord Peter Wimsey and his eventual wife, Harriet Vane. While I believe there's general agreement on Sayers's contributions to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, there's a certain amount of grumbling about the last of Sayers's novels to feature the couple, Busman's Honeymoon. Well, gruntle away, oh disgruntled reader. I've always enjoyed Busman's Honeymoon, a book I have read and re-read several times, and I want to share some of the reasons why. Here, edited as always, is the review I did a decade ago for the Classic Mysteries podcast.
- 0 -
So there you are – a successful detective who has just married the most wonderful woman in the world after pursuing her for more than five years. You have escaped together from pursuing reporters and disapproving in-laws to a romantic hideaway for your honeymoon. And a body turns up in the basement. What’s a detective to do? That’s the problem confronting Lord Peter Wimsey and his bride, Harriet Vane, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ marvelous book, Busman’s Honeymoon.
Perhaps the best way to explain Busman’s Honeymoon is to quote from a letter Dorothy Sayers wrote to friends – a letter which now forms the introduction to the book. Here is what she said:
"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. This book deals with such a situation."
Busman’s Honeymoon, dating from 1937, was the last mystery novel Sayers would complete about her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. It begins with his marriage to Harriet Vane, a story told through several letters and excerpts from the diary of Lord Peter’s mother. Lord Peter had pursued Harriet through three earlier novels, beginning when he saved her life during her trial for the murder of a former lover. His pursuit lasted more than five years before she eventually said yes. As for the wedding, as one of Harriet’s friends described it in a letter:
“There was something rather splendid about the way those two claimed one another, as though nothing and nobody else mattered or even existed; he was the only bridegroom I have ever seen who looked as though he knew exactly what he was doing and meant to do it."
At any rate, they are married, elude a flock of reporters, and escape to a small farmhouse, in the town where Harriet was born, where they intend to spend their honeymoon. Here, the real story begins, as they find the house locked and deserted, the neighbors initially hostile, and the agent who was supposed to have everything ready for them appears to be missing.
Still, they move in. And throughout, Sayers is laying the groundwork for the couple, spending much of her time on the emotions and insights of bride and bridegroom about each other. There is a marvelous moment, for example, where they are talking to the local vicar, who has dropped by. Harriet, listening to her new husband talk to the vicar, is deeply moved:
"More than any of the friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She was curiously excited. She thought, 'I have married England.' Her fingers tightened on his arm.
"England, serenely unaware of his symbolic importance, acknowledge the squeeze with a pressure of the elbow. 'Splendid!' he said, heartily."
And so Sayers continues to outline the newlyweds. In fact, almost all of the first hundred pages of the novel go by without being interrupted by any detection – until the missing agent turns up, dead, in the honeymooners’ basement.
And so Lord Peter Wimsey is drawn into another murder investigation – or, perhaps more accurately, finds himself involved in it, whether he wants to be or not. And it turns out to be a difficult and, ultimately, painful case.
But a fair amount of the story here deals less with the mystery and detection than with the way Peter and Harriet must work out for themselves the degree to which this activity – this detective work, for want of a better way of describing it – will be allowed to play a significant part in their lives together. It has always been all-consuming for Lord Peter Wimsey – but he is no longer alone, and must come to grips with its impact on himself, his new wife, and their marriage. And so we see the new couple working through their difficulties, coming to terms with their new relationship.
Throughout, the love story continues to dominate. There is a wonderful line, when Harriet looks at her husband’s face:
"she lifted his head between her hands, and what she saw in his face stopped her heart."
There is a great deal more of that in this book, and it’s one of the reasons why it is one of my favorites in the series.
There is a great deal that can annoy the casual reader today in the Sayers novels, and it is on display in Busman’s Honeymoon. There is the tendency of this Oxford-educated-and-raised author to throw in quote after quote, often unidentified. There are untranslated letters written in French. There are the rigidities of the English class system of the time.
But I believe all these are minor considerations overall. The mystery is ingenious – Wimsey solves it almost entirely on the strength of a chance remark by another character. And the overriding importance of the love story, as Peter and Harriet explore their new relationship, make for an extremely readable and enjoyable book – and this one, in particular, I think, stands up well on re-reading.
- 0 -
To listen to the original podcast, click here.
Next week: To Love and Be Wise, by Josephine Tey