While reading this, the fifth Sayers mystery I’ve read so far, I was finally able to figure out just why I love her novels more than any other mystery writer I’ve encountered so far: I love Dorothy Sayers because she does everything wrong, but it all somehow manages to work.
There are some commonly accepted rules for novel-writing, and detective-novel-writing specifically, that authors have to follow in order for anyone to enjoy/buy their books. Dorothy Sayers looks at these rules, scoffs, and goes ahead and writes great detective novels that manage to break just about every commonly-accepted rule of good writing.
1. Don’t pander to your fans. It alienates new readers and there’s a 95% chance your actual fans will find something to rant about in their blogs anyway.
The only way I would ever recommend Busman’s Honeymoon to someone is if I knew that they had already read Strong Poison AND Have His Carcase AND Gaudy Night AND loved every minute of each of those books. Because otherwise, there’s no point. This book is so obviously pandering to Sayers’ fans that it borders on fan fiction. The only people who are going to enjoy this book as fully as it should be enjoyed are the ones who have read all the previous Harriet/Peter mysteries, swooned over every second of their romance, and are dying for Sayers to give up the deets on their wedding night. Luckily, I am one of those people. (and an fyi to the rest of our small club: Sayers isn’t explicit in her description, but rest assured that Peter and Harriet GET. IT. ON. And it is glorious.)
2. Make your writing accessible to lots of readers – if you use lots of obscure allusions and references, people will lose interest if they don’t understand them.
This is a rule that Sayers spits on with particular fervor. Another author might have settled for just having a Shakespeare-quoting detective, but not Sayers. She was one of the first women accepted to Oxford University and she is going to prove it, dammit. Her characters don’t stop at quoting Shakespeare; they quote John Donne, TS Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Geoffry Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe…and those are the ones I could identify. About 70% of the time, a character would quote something and it would go right over my head. Be warned: you are not as smart as Dorothy Sayers, and she will make you feel illiterate for not having the entire Shakespeare canon memorized.
3. Start the mystery early; developing the case should be your priority.
In this book, the dead body which the case centers around isn’t discovered until page 116. Before that, it’s just pages and pages of character development and backstory about Peter and Harriet’s wedding, and general post-wedding business and conversations. Even after the body is found, our main characters only exert about half their energy on figuring out who killed the guy, because they have other stuff to deal with. The mystery, like in Gaudy Night, is actually just a subplot, something to complement Peter and Harriet’s ongoing romance. They can’t worry too much about the body because they’re busy grappling with the implications of their marriage and trying to figure out how to proceed from there.
4. The mystery should be complex and interesting, and your readers shouldn’t be able to figure out who did it.
You shouldn’t read Sayers novels for the mysteries – there’s so much other interesting stuff going on, it’s easy to miss the fact that the mystery is often pretty simple, and doesn’t require that much work to solve. Any other literary sleuth would have had the Busman’s Honeymoon mystery wrapped up without breaking a sweat. Miss Marple would have figured it out after ten minutes of tea with the culprit. Hercule Poirot would take maybe a day. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would probably know the culprit immediately and beat a confession out of him/her. Sherlock Holmes would take one look at the crime scene and know how it was done. Peter and Harriet look at the crime scene, talk about it, take a drive, talk with some other people, have a few subplots, quote lots of stuff, and finally figure it out. And then the story keeps going, because the mystery was not the point.
5. Once the mystery is solved, the detective moves on to the next case and that’s the end of it.
There was something in this book that I had never seen in any other mystery novel before – the detective feeling extreme remorse over the murderer’s death. In this book, the murderer is definitely guilty, confesses, shows no remorse, and is sent to prison and hanged for murder. It’s all legal, it’s all technically right, but Peter still visits the culprit in prison, and almost has an emotional breakdown on the morning the culprit is scheduled to be executed. In this book, Sayers deals with the psychological implications that come with catching criminals, and it’s fascinating.
She even delves into Peter’s WWI-related trauma, which hadn’t been dealt with in any of the books I’d read so far. The scene where Harriet learns about Peter’s experiences in WWI is very moving, especially this quote from Peter’s mother: “There were eighteen months…not that I suppose he’ll ever tell you about that, at least, if he does, then you’ll know he’s cured…I don’t mean he went out of his mind or anything, and he was always perfectly sweet about it, only he was so dreadfully afraid to go to sleep.”
That’s why I love Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries: I love Harriet and Peter, selfishness and elitism and post-traumatic stress and all. They are wonderful, fully realized characters, and I will never get tired of reading about them. Keep your Nick and Nora Charles, keep your Darcy and Elizabeth, keep your goddamn Heathcliff and Kathy; this is the only literary couple I swoon for. They are lovely people, and I want them to be happy forever, and I want to keep reading about it. To hell with the rules.
Verdict: four out of five stars