Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

8 Dec

Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers

The last of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Busman’s Honeymoon is as much a detective story as a romance. It is also the fourth and last story in the Harriet Vane story arc***. What with one thing and another, it also happens to be Lord Peter’s readers’ last opportunity for years to see these beloved characters.

Here is the brief blurb from the back cover of my copy:

Murder is hardly the best way for Lord Peter and his bride, the famous mystery writer Harriet Vane, to start their honeymoon. It all begins when the former owner of their newly acquired estate is found quite nastily dead in the cellar. And what Lord Peter had hoped would be a very private and romantic stay in the country soon turns into a most baffling case, what with the misspelled “notise” to the milkman and the intriguing condition of the dead man—not a spot of blood on his smashed skull and not a pence less than six hundred pounds in his pocket.

As a first class nitpicker, I’ll say that the mystery plot in this novel is one of the best out of the eleven Wimsey books—up there with Whose Body? and Unnatural Death. What sets this book apart is that, indeed, some of the most intense exchanges between the main characters occur after the how and the who have been revealed.

But let me start at the beginning…

If you haven’t read any of the Wimsey novels, this is—most definitely—not the one to read first. Here, for once, it’s not my anal retentive nature speaking, but plain common sense. The relationships between the different characters (particularly Harriet and Peter, but also both of them with Bunter, the Dowager Duchess and others) are multi-layered, complex and, occasionally, funny in an incredibly subtle way. Reading them cold, so to speak, would rob the reader of the opportunity of perceiving many of these nuances.

The novel, set shortly after the events of Gaudy Night, starts with a series of letters written by and to people in Peter’s life. For those familiar with these characters, each one of this passages is a glimpse into a familiar world, (with a healthy helping of laughing-out-loud hilarity). From Bunter to Peter’s mother, the reader is treated to little nuggets of insight into the characters—both those “writing” the letters, and those the letters are about. These letters, and some passages from the Dowager Duchess’ diary that follow them, serve as a sort of prologue to set up the story proper.

… Which starts with Peter and Harriet leaving the wedding reception—held at his mother’s house in London—literally for “parts unknown” in order to escape, at least for a few weeks, the notice of the press. After all, not only is Peter a well-known and wealthy aristocrat (the second son of a Duke, for goodness’ sake!) but he is marrying the notorious Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories and, once upon a time, accused of having poisoned her lover.

Secrecy under the circumstances is not just a preference but a necessity.

Inevitably, it is also the catalyst for a number of mishaps that resolve themselves into the finding of a corpse in the wine cellar.

I will not go into much detail on the plot as regards the mystery. Enough to repeat myself and say that it is tightly plotted and cleverly solved.

To a Wimsey or Sayers fan, though, the real gold is in the scenes between Peter and Harriet. Theirs is such an interesting and complicated relationship that each snippet of dialogue, each sudden realization—particularly from her point of view—brings such a sense of completion to those of us who have followed them through the previous novels. There are two scenes with only Harriet and Peter that move me deeply—and in one of them there’s almost no dialogue other than his internal musings (when you read the book, it’s the bench in the old cemetery).

Aside from the letters mentioned earlier, the cast of characters is fairly limited. Peter, Harriet and Bunter, of course, with cameos by the Dowager Duchess and a couple of characters from earlier installments; but mostly it’s ordinary people from the little town of Paggleham. The chimney sweeper, the town constable, the village spinster, the gardener-cum-jack of all trades, the vicar and his wife, the cleaning lady, etc.

Characterization is, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, one of Ms Sayers’ greatest gifts. Some of the characters appear in a couple of scenes at most, yet they are all drawn so well one can immediately see and hear them—as they are. These, despite my pithy manner of referring to them above, are not stereotypes but people, vividly alive and unique. Miss Twitterton, then, has nothing in common with Miss Climpson other than spinsterhood, and Superintendent Kirk’s only similarity to Parker is their profession.

Bunter, of course, is magnificent. Here, for the second time ever (the first being during the events of Nine Taylors), Bunter loses his temper—and his refined and wonderful use of the language. That interlude alone is worth the price of admission.

The dialogue is, as always with Ms Sayers’ novels, nothing short of brilliant. Each character’s voice is so distinctive, the dialogue tags would be redundant if they were not so wisely used.

As I read over what I’ve written so far, I realize that I’m gushing, yet I find it difficult to care. The series as a whole is wonderful, with some installments rising above the others for different reasons—plot, pace, what have you—but this last title is such an extremely satisfying close that it occupies a place all by itself. Hell, it’s such a wonderful book it almost makes me forgive the lack of further titles—almost!

Busman’s Honeymoon is one of those books I know I will re-read often, in parts or from cover to cover, for the rest of my life. 10 out of 10

*

***there are a two short stories set *after* the events narrated in this novel, but for the purposes of the actual story arc, they don’t count (and that’s all I can say without giving spoilers for them)

*

Full list of Lord Peter Wimsey novels:

  • Whose Body?
  • Clouds of Witness
  • Unnatural Death (review)
  • Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • Strong Poison (review)
  • Five Red Herrings
  • Have His Carcase (review)
  • Murder Must Advertise
  • The Nine Tailors
  • Gaudy Night (review)
  • Busman’s Honeymoon

Also: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, which contains all 21 short stories starring the most “perfect English aristocrat”.

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2 Responses to “Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L. Sayers”

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  1. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers « Her Hands, My Hands - 04/02/2012

    […] Strong Poison Five Red Herrings Have His Carcase Murder Must Advertise The Nine Tailors Gaudy Night Busman’s Honeymoon Also, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey […]

  2. Five Books Everyone Should Read, at the Book Binge | Her Hands, My Hands - 26/07/2015

    […] Busman’s Honeymoon, by Dorothy L Sayers […]

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