Ex Libris: Misplaced body adds to amusement

Murder writing can be a dangerous business. For one thing, as murder mystery author Harriet Vane finds when she discovers a dead man’s body on a beach while vacationing, it can make an innocent woman look very suspicious, especially if she’s already been tried for murder once.

For another, as Dorothy L. Sayers knew while writing Have His Carcase, it can be very difficult to make a plot feasible and enigmatic without relying on a deus ex machina, a “god from the machine” wherein a seemingly inextricable plot is abruptly solved thanks to an unexplained, godlike intervention. However, in true Sayers fashion, Have His Carcase avoids this pitfall neatly and comes off as a thought-provoking and dazzling addition to Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series.

What makes Sayers’ books different from most murder mysteries is the amount of detail that she puts into her work and the style in which she presents it: She neatly avoids the grittiness of a gory scene, though still getting across crucial points, and she makes descriptions palatable for readers who are less interested in what a cut throat looks like than in who did it.

Sayers also takes risks with her writing by basing mysteries around existing places, as she did with an artists’ colony in Scotland in her previous book The Five Red Herrings, and in Have His Carcase, where the murder takes place at a beach near a resort town, with the body of evidence quite literally about to be taken out by the tide.

The book opens on Vane, the mystery writer who was accused of murdering her long-time beau in String Poison and cleared by Wimsey, who has fallen in love with her. Again, Vane is accused, but thanks to her detective acumen, she had taken as many pictures of the body and collected as much evidence as she could before high tide washed it away.

For the bulk of the book, Wimsey and Vane must work together off the clues Vane found as the police dredge the bay of the small resort town for the body. Along the way, they must confront the difficulties of rising and falling tides, the lack of footprints along the sands, the fact that the deceased looks like he committed suicide, and the ludicrous allegations of the wealthy widow the deceased had intended to marry.

The book is comical but never unbelievable: Sayers’ plot has all the twists and ingenious turns of a real-life caper gone astray, headlined by characters so well-developed and full that it’s jarring to remember that they’re fictional.

Though the book does have a comic element — police unable to find the body after relentless searching, Wimsey’s constant requests for Vane to marry him, and a plot to restore the Russian czardom — it also addresses darker concerns just as unabashedly. Wimsey finds that Vane’s room has been searched and eventually explains that he’s been acting like a lovesick admirer in order to secretly help clear her name without arousing suspicion.

Vane confronts the expectations for women as she observes the deceased’s intended bride being ridiculed for attempting to remarry at her extreme age, and the way Vane herself is being treated as a potential suspect, branded as a dangerous and intelligent female. The characters develop slowly but truthfully through the series, and that is what perhaps gives Sayers’ work its greatest appeal.

Though deciphering out codes and finding holes in alibis is fascinating, perhaps Have His Carcase's greatest strength is how Sayers manages to coax out a complicated plot without losing the reality of her characters in the process. As always, a triumph.