Sunday, February 05, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon

At the end of Dorothy Sayer's excellent and probably most famous book, Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane agrees to marry Lord Peter Wimsey - although the whole conversation is in Latin so you might miss it, as I did, until I looked up the rather obscure references online.  The next book, Busman's Holiday, (1937) has Harriet and Lord Peter getting married at the beginning and then swiftly retiring to the village where Harriet grew up. She always admired a house there, so, naturally, her fancy new husband bought it for her.  The first few chapters find the newlyweds mildly aghast that their country home has not been properly prepared as promised by the erstwhile previous owner.  There are many, many pages devoted to the cleaning of chimneys - although Harriet and Peter are so charming and in love it doesn't really matter.  After about a day, they discover the body of the previous owner is found in the cellar, leading to that curious phrase "Busman's holiday", which means to go on vacation and do the same thing that you do in your work-a-day life (like when Jessica Fletcher goes on vacation and
someone gets themselves killed and she has to solve the murder.)  There is, as you might expect, some assholery in the derivation, which is that when the bus driver goes on vacation, he has to take the bus to get there.

The mystery is a bit of a locked room, because all the doors to the house were locked from the inside when the Wimsey's arrived, so how could anyone have killed this guy?

There's a lot of talk about how to solve a murder - Wimsey maintains that you find the "How" and that leads to the "Who" and is less interested in motive than his new wife.  Harriet largely agrees, although she always comes back to the motive as a writer of mysteries herself:
  "If a thing could only have been done one way, and if only one person could have done it that way, then you've got your criminal, motive or no motive. there's How, When, Where, Why and Who - and when you've got How you've got Who. Thus spake Zarathustra."
  "I seem to have married my only intelligent reader. That's the way you construct it from the other end, of course. Artistically, it's absolutely right."  

this cover seriously
gives it all away
That sort of thing reads like fan service for the murder mystery reader and is, admittedly, enjoyable. Sayers includes quite a few of those expository moments for Peter and Harriet to reflect on their methods and the reader to geek out over her method.

Aside from the term "busman's holiday" I also learned about "banns", a Church of England requirement to announce intent to marry to the local vicar.  There's some anti-Semitic stuff about unattractive businessmen and their Jewish heritage that seems entirely out of context except for the year of publication.  And there's an interesting bit that briefly describes how Peter came to employ his remarkable valet, Bunter - the "Jeeves" of the operation.  They fought together in WWI and Peter offered him a job if they lived to survive the fox hole they were hiding in.  Peter was suffering from "shell-shock" and Bunter helped ease him out of it by knowing precisely what to do, as he always does.  If only we could all have our own Bunters.

What's most interesting, at least to me, is the negotiation of Peter and Harriet's married life.  Harriet turned down many proposals from Peter in the interest of her own independance - it's only when she trusts that he'll allow her to maintain her own personhood that she agrees to marry him.  When Peter suffers rather severe emotional distress upon uncovering the murder and consequently sending him to his death sentence, Harriet finds herself in the position of providing necessary "space" to Peter (although they didn't use that language in 1937).  Harriet feels like she has to wait for Peter to chose to come to her as a refuge, and when he inevitably does, it's a major triumph for her and the marriage.  It's kind of romantic, but also a bit odd  - but, then again, these are two oddball characters - both slightly older, neither na├»ve and each with a whole lot of murder baggage to carry around.

Busman's Honeymoon is Sayer's last book about Lord Peter and Harriet, with the apparent subtext that they leave the murder-solving business forever following Peter's mini-breakdown after the trial. The reader can imagine Peter and Harriet living out their rich lives without having to solve a murder everywhere they go like poor Mrs. Fletcher.

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