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Locked Room Reviews:
Dorothy L. Sayers:
A master of mystery fiction!
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Note: Busman’s Honeymoon was never part of either Lord Peter TV Series, as the BBC was unable to obtain rights. Sayers was never happy with the 1940 film and disowned it. It was then done twice in live BBC TV productions in 1947 and 1957. Ironically, the 1940 film is an American import, only sold on Amazon UK!
Over the next few weeks I will be reviewing several of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. This the last novel of that series, but is one of the first reviewed, largely because it is also part of our classic locked room mystery series!
The usual introduction to reviews of Dorothy Sayers ‘Busman’s Holiday’, include a quote from a passage in the dedication where Sayers notes: “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. It also provides some sort of answer to many kindly inquiries as to how Lord Peter and his Harriet solved their matrimonial problem. If there is but a ha’porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse.” A quite effective self-review, that has taken the thunder out of many critiques by hardcore mystery lovers.
Still, one must agree that the romance does tend to steal the spotlight in this final instalment of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but let’s put matters into perspective. This is the last act of a four novel romance, and in the earlier works the mystery clearly stole the limelight from the slowly unfolding romantic narrative. If you are a diehard mystery fan, it therefore might be best to avoid reading this volume as your first Lord Peter murder! However, for those of us who read the series from the start, this quite excellent short mystery within a novel, is more of a literary device that allows Sayers to present the triumph of love over nasty murder trials, the endless terrors of war, and all those other horrid vagaries of life we must face in a rapidly changing world. Murder had it’s turn to dominate in ‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have His Carcase’, and the dark shadows of ‘Gaudy Night’, now it is time for the victory of love – and who are we to deny love it’s moment – especially when we are compensated with a great locked room mystery puzzle that still assures us we have not yet fallen victim to the dreaded romance novel?
Another point, too often forgotten, is that ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ was originally written as a play, co-authored by Muriel St. Clare Byrne in 1936. This play, much like Christie’s Mousetrap, which has been running continuously since 1952, is intended to be light theatre fare, not some dark police thriller, or deep psychological commentary on contemporary gender relations. In fact, in retrospect, it is really quite hard to rid oneself of the feeling that Sayers was tired of writing Wimsey novels, and that this play cum romance cum mystery, is her way of wrapping up the romantic adventures of Peter and Harriet for her many readers, with a light locked room puzzle, as a farewell gift from one of the great masters of the Golden Age. Comments made in the ‘Wimsey Papers’, a collection of fictional Wimsey family letters written as a commentary on early wartime England, suggest that Sayers found it impossible to continue making light of murder, when so many were being slaughtered by the dictators of Europe. It is therefore a quite reasonable conclusion that this was intended as Lord Peter’s farewell appearance. Sayers used ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, and the later short story, ‘Talboys’, as a way of pensioning Peter off into domestic bliss, a much gentler solution than Conan Doyle’s attempt to toss Sherlock into Reichenbach Falls! By the way, in case anyone misses the meaning of the title, it refers to a bus driver who goes on a bus tour holiday, thereby hardly getting a break from his normal routine. A quite appropriate title for a novel about an amateur sleuth and a mystery novelist who spend their honeymoon investigating a baffling murder mystery!
The mystery itself, sans romance and the struggle by Peter and Harriet to shift their lives into domestic harmony, is really quite simple, and an excellent puzzle that lays out all the clues quite fairly, though not many will work out the solution very long before it is explained by Lord Peter. Few authors have ever been as good at the craft of mystery plotting as Sayers, and this is another of her master plots. If not for the romance filling out the story, it would have made a truly excellent short story.
The novel begins with the wedding of Peter and mystery novelist, Harriet Vane, in Oxford, followed by their escape from a slew of reporters, and finally their arrival at Talboys, a house coveted by Harriet since her childhood, and now a wedding gift from Lord Peter. Peter had secretly bought the property from its owner, a miserly old man named Noakes, on the understanding that the furniture would remain until after the honeymoon and that the house would be cleaned and made ready for their late arrival. The minor domestic problem of transporting Peter’s vintage port, prove quite inconsequential in comparison with the problems upon their arrival in Hertfordshire. Talboys is locked and bolted and completely unprepared for the couple’s wedding night. Bunter does his best to make things work, and their first night as man and wife is ironically spent in blissful innocence, in the relative comfort of a goose down bed. It is not until the next day, after the house has been partially cleaned and the chimney swept, that Noakes’ body is discovered in the cellar, with his head badly bashed. The only reasonable conclusion is that Noakes had locked and bolted his doors one evening, then managed to knock himself over the head, before, in some mysterious manner, tumbling dead into the cellar.
Still, neither the police, nor the newlyweds, can accept that this was simply an accident. The medical report makes it clear that death occurred about a week earlier, caused by a tumble down the stairs, but it seems that Mr Noakes got knocked on the head at some earlier time, then awoke in a state of confusion, locked the doors, and finally fell down the cellar stairs – killing himself by hitting the bottom step forehead forward. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the cellar door had still been open upon the Wimsey arrival.
Their are several candidates for the role of head basher. Noakes niece, the next neighbour, the local mechanic, the vicar, the handyman, and even the police constable on the local beat, all had reason to wish this arrogant old man dead, whether due to his habitual blackmail, ongoing disputes, or just his miserly manner. Noakes was a very unpopular character and few mourn his passing, though all are very surprised to discover that his supposed wealth was a fiction and that he was actually quite bankrupt.
Peter and Harriet slowly grow into their new relationship, as they follow the clues and chase sold-off antique chimney pots across the countryside, but it isn’t until a chance comment by the vicar starts Lord Peter’s brain whirling, that the mystery is finally unravelled. And not a moment too soon – the movers have just arrived to seize Noakes possessions – which means the evidence is headed out the door. The entire ensemble then come on stage, in true mystery play fashion, for Lord Peter’s final denouement.
This locked room puzzle is actually one of the better Golden Age creations in this sub-genre, though it is hardly surprising that the victim had to finish his own murder by falling down the stairs, in what must be considered as a rather foolhardy plot, that may well have turned out badly for the murderer, if the steps had not conveniently finished the job!
This is a very hard mystery to rate, as it is more of a play and a no-nonsense love story, entwined with an excellent short story puzzler, than it is a typical murder mystery novel. For us staunch fans of Lord Peter, it will always be a full fledged five star mystery, well earned by its role as the final act of the Lord Peter story. Purely rated as a mystery it is probably only a solid four, but it is a great locked room tale and I am an unabashed fan – so five stars is awarded.
One final note, the Lord Peter Wimsey novels are generally good stand alone stories and it is not overly important that they be read in order. However, with the four Harriet Vane stories, order becomes critical. Start with ‘Strong Poison’, follow it with the excellent ‘Have His Carcase’, then move on to ‘Gaudy Night’, and finally ‘Busman’s Holiday’. If you read them in order, chances are you will agree with my rating, if not, there is a strong possibility that ‘Busman’s Holiday’ will prove to be somewhat less enchanting.
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