Dec 11 2015 3:00pm

The Golden Age of Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase

In the second Lord Peter/Harriet Vane case, a walking tour of the English coast hardly goes according to plan when Miss Vane, mystery writer and once accused murderess, stumbles across a body on the beach.

Exonerated of the poisoning murder of her former lover, Harriet is vacationing far from London in the hopes of distancing herself from her past ordeals—and to gain some perspective on Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic sleuth who saved her from the gallows (and proposes marriage at every possible opportunity).

So, when she finds a bearded foreigner on a rock not far from the tide-line, his throat brutally cut and no sign of a murderer's footprints in the sand, she's more than a little perturbed. Unfamiliar with the area, it takes her a frustrating amount of time to notify the police, and by then, the victim has been washed out to sea.

With only Harriet's photographs and the evidence she collected as proof that there really was a man on Flat Iron Rock, the author finds herself in quite a sticky situation. As the only witness and an obvious suspect, Harriet is now trapped in the small resort town of Wilvercombe.

Fortunately—but also unfortunately—Lord Peter is quick to fly to her rescue.

HARRIET: Peter! What on earth brings you here?

PETER [GESTURING AT NEWSPAPER]: 'Famous author finds body on beach'. So here I am like a bird that hears the call of its mate.

HARRIET: I didn't call!

PETER: I meant the body. But talking of mates, will you marry me?

HARRIET: Certainly not. How did you get here so quickly?

PETER: Sally Hardy, who is even now waiting at the bar, telephoned me last night and told me that 'my Miss Vane' had found a corpse, and did I know about it? I don't know how he knew.

HARRIET: I told him.

PETER: With all the gory details?

HARRIET: Certainly. Good publicity for my new book.

PETER: Does this not, pardon me, indicate a certain coarsening of the fibers?

HARRIET: Absolutely. At this moment my fibers resemble coconut matting.

PETER: With not even 'Welcome' written across them.

Of course, having Lord Peter on hand to smooth things over with the local police is a relief, and as the details of the mystery are uncovered, Harriet knows she can rely on his sharp mind to help her piece together the puzzle.

But Peter is an unavoidable reminder of her still recent nightmare, and she remains unsure of her feelings for him. She's attracted to him, fond of him, and enjoys their witty jousting. The problem is that the most overwhelming feeling she has for Peter is one of gratitude—and it's very difficult to enter into an equal partnership when you feel beholden to the other and utterly in their debt.

And on Peter's side of the matter, he's fully aware of this imbalance in their relationship, and so he goes to an extra effort to play the buffoon. He continually proposes marriage, but does so in the most ridiculous and operatic of fashions to give her plenty of ways to turn him down. Take, for instance, when the pair go in to a dinner to take stock of a suspect:

HARRIET: He's here.

PETER: Well, I suppose I better go in and look the blighter over. Is he handsome?

HARRIET: Yes, rather!

PETER: In that case, you better tell him we're engaged or I'll be obliged to assassinate him.

HARRIET: Would you? That's splendid.

PETER: Will you marry me?

HARRIET: Certainly not—it's twenty-five to nine.

PETER: Alright. I hope your rabbit dies.

The Wilvercombe mystery is a colorful one. The victim, Paul Alexis, was a professional dancer at the Resplendent Hotel. A Russian living in English exile following the revolution, he apparently had schmoozed his way into the heart of the elderly and very wealthy Flora Weldon.

But the engagement was a short one, ending when Paul Alexis walked out to Flat Iron Rock and...cut his own throat?

The local police want to write the strange affair off as suicide—after all, there were no other footsteps leading to or from the body—but that explanation doesn't sit well with Mrs. Weldon, Harriet, or Lord Peter.

Digging into the evidence reveals a strange cast of suspects and character witnesses. There's Bright, the itinerant barber with a hunched shoulder (“Like Richard the Third,” says Harriet) who apparently gave the murder weapon to Alexis; Haviland Martin, a camper with a snake tattoo who was seen not far from the fatal beach; and Mrs. Morecombe, a fashionable London lady with a distinctive, red car.

Monsieur Antoine and Cherie, the other professional dancers at the hotel, are sure Alexis didn't have the nerve to take a razor to his throat, describing him as a “regular namby-pamby.” Henry Weldon, Mrs. Weldon's lout of a son, might very well have killed to preserve his inheritance, unwilling to accept a “thirty-year-old lounge lizard” as a stepfather. A crusty fisherman named Pollock may have seen more than he's letting on, and Mrs. Lefranc, the owner of the boardinghouse Alexis lived at and a retired circus performer (now that's an interesting landlady!), laments his death as if he were her own son.

It's a good thing Lord Peter and Harriet can put their heads together on this one. They learn the deceased had three hundred gold sovereigns on him just before he died, that he was communicating with someone through coded letters, and that he might have just possibly been royalty. There's obviously a lot more going on than the police are willing to take at face value.

As always, Peter's talent for observation and deduction helps make sense of the oddest clues, like a horseshoe found near Flat Iron Rock, possibly left behind by a mounted murderer:

“It's a new shoe—and it hasn't been here very long. Perhaps a week, perhaps a little more. Belongs to a nice little cob, about fourteen hands. Pretty little animal, fairly well-bred, rather given to kicking her shoes off, pecks a little with the off-fore.”

“Holmes, this is wonderful! How do you do it?”

“Perfectly simple, my dear Watson. The shoe hasn't been worn thin by the 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer of the 'ard 'igh road, therefore it is reasonably new. It's a little rusty from lying in the water, but hardly at all rubbed by sand and stones, and not at all corroded, which suggests that it hasn't been here long. The size of the shoe gives the size of the nag, and the shape suggests a nice little round, well-bred hoof. Though newish, the shoe isn't fire-new, and it is worn down a little on the inner front edge, which shows that the wearer was disposed to peck a little, while the way the nails are placed and clinched indicates that the smith wanted to make the shoe extra secure—which is why I said that a lost shoe was a fairly common accident with this particular gee. Still, we needn't blame him or her too much. With all these stones about, a slight trip or knock might easily wrench a shoe away.”

“Him or her. Can't you go on and tell the sex and color while you're about it?”

“I am afraid even I have my limitations, my dear Watson.”

Sayers' gentlemen sleuth and his novelist ladylove are in fine form in this adventure, which delivers a wild ride of a mystery and plenty of fun repartee. The waters are plenty muddied at first, but Lord Peter and Harriet do a marvelous job of laying things out sensibly. The climax is an exciting one, with means, motive, and opportunity finally explained following some deft tailing by faithful manservant Bunter and a Romanov clue.

The 1987 BBC adaptation is remarkably faithful to the original text, with more spot-on casting. Rowena Cooper is a particular stand-out as the often-hysterical (in the original sense of the word) Flora Weldon, a rather ridiculous woman who you simultaneously pity and want to smack for her overwrought behavior.

I don't think I'll ever get over how perfect Edward Petherbridge is as Lord Peter; he plays him with just enough pathos beneath the refined and often silly veneer. Richard Morant's Bunter is as dutifully helpful as ever, and gets to cut the heroic figure during a dramatic ride across the beach.

And Harriet Walter manages to give her Harriet Vane just the right body language and hesitant reactions to show that Peter's romantic persistence isn't truly unwanted—it's more that Harriet just needs to get her own heart in order before she can take his proposals seriously.

The moment when Harriet and Peter finally have it out in a blazing row, laying all of their worries and frustrations about their relationship on the table, is a definite highlight in this adapt. For all that Peter indulges in comedy and light quips, it's undeniable that his emotions for Harriet are real and deep, and Petherbridge delivers a stirring speech about the “ugliness of gratitude.”

Given the unusual start to their romance, it's only fitting that the relationship deepens over a crazy murder investigation at a seaside resort full of money, razors, conspiracies, and coded letters. By the time the miscreants are caught, will there finally be wedding bells on the horizon for the sleuthing pair? Well...

“Now then! My dear, what's happened? You're all of a doodah!”

“Peter! I believe I've been kissed by a murderer.”

“Have you? Well, it serves you right for letting anybody kiss you but me. Good heavens! You raise all sorts of objections to a perfectly amiable and reasonably virtuous man like myself, and the next thing I hear is that you are wallowing in the disgusting embraces of a murderer. Upon my soul! I don't know what the modern girl is coming to.”


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Mantelli
I enjoy a lot of things about this book, but even the first time I read it at age 16, the central mystery wasn't so mysterious, as I was pretty much up on the medical conditions of the Romanovs.
2. Connor
As always, a delight to read your re-caps--and especially those involving Lord Peter and Harriet Vane! Have His Carcase was, accidentally, the first Harriet Vane I read... but, of course, as you've pointed out through their banter and re-cap of the adaptation, it definitely doesn't disappoint. Can't wait for the next one!
Post a comment