Previous DLS posts: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
, the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot
, Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson
, Whose Body?
, Clouds of Witness
, Unnatural Death
, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 1
, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 2
, Strong Poison
, The Five Red Herrings
, Have His Carcase 1
Metatextuality and generic conventions--this is starting to look uncannily like my dissertation.
The beginning of Have His Carcase
is also the beginning of our relationship with Harriet Vane as a major character. She is not, after all, on stage very much during Strong Poison
, and we do not get to see anything from her point of view. Even the last scene between her, Sylvia, and Eiluned is nothing but stage-directions and dialogue.
So this is our introduction proper to Harriet as she is rather than as Peter perceives her. (One of my favorite things about HHC
is that there is a distinct gap between Peter's perception of Harriet and Harriet's own self-perception; Harriet is not nearly as much of a romantic as Peter.) And I personally appreciate the fact that Harriet is not
perfect; she's abrasive, selfish, and frequently badly behaved. The narrative is not protective of Harriet, as it sometimes is of Peter--and it always grates on me when she makes some deliberate gesture of mockery at Peter; it always feels like a cheap sneer. We are shown Harriet's faults with perfect matter-of-factness and left to understand that she is not a paragon, not the sort of woman you can put on a pedestal (unlike, for instance, Gilda Farren in T5RH
); Harriet is a human being, warts and all. And she is a detective story writer.
Whatever DLS's intentions in making Harriet a novelist, she turns ito to brilliant use here, using Harriet's profession as a way to signal that this is not merely a mystery, it is also a novel about
mysteries. Harriet's mysteries (we learn the titles of five of them: Death in the Pot
, Murder by Degrees
, The Fountain Pen Mystery
, The Sands of Crime
, Death 'Twixt Wind and Water
) are, from the evidence we're given, distinctly conventional mysteries of their day (except perhaps Death 'Twixt Wind and Water
, but consideration of that will have to wait until Gaudy Night
), and Harriet clearly produces them as regularly as any Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr ... or Dorothy Sayers.
Harriet's profession is no mere window dressing either; it is part of the texture of the narrative. "There is something about virgin sand which arouses all the worst instincts of the detective-story writer" (HHC
10); Harriet finds the body precisely because, as a mystery writer, she can't resist exploring the deserted stretch of sandy beach: a stereotypical setting for a crime.
In fact, Harriet is proceeding like a genre detective even before she notices the body at all: drawing deductions about the tide, observing the effects of her own footprints, "talking aloud to herself, as was her rather irritating habit" (HHC
12)--but a very necessary one for a genre detective who has no sidekick handy.
Her exercise in deducing the background of the corpse (aside from being a habit of Sherlock Holmes) also brings up the first--though hardly the last--specific reference to a genre detective in HHC
: "Well, I can't place him, but no doubt Dr. Thorndyke would do so at once" (HHC
12). Thorndyke is the detective of R. Austin Freeman
, whose works are also referenced in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
(Ann Dorland has been reading Freeman in bulk) and The Five Red Herrings
(Ferguson, a mystery aficionado, has Freeman on his shelves). Even before she knows she's in a mystery, Harriet displays a mental habit of viewing life through the filter of the mystery genre.
DLS proceeds to signal both the artificiality of the novel and her own cheerful awareness of it; Harriet, approaching the rock and the body, says:
Now if I had any luck, he'd be a corpse, and I should report him and get my name in the papers. That would be something like publicity. 'Well-known Woman Detective-Writer Finds Mystery Corpse on Lonely Shore.' But these things never happen to authors. It's always some placid labourer or night-watchman who finds corpses. . . .
And yet, as the narrative notes with morbid humor: "Harriet's luck was in" (HHC
13). It is worth noting, too, that the rest of the novel does serve as a sort of cautionary tale for the motto, "Be careful what you wish for." This is an artificial scenario from start to finish. The narrative knows that and relishes it--and wants its readers to relish it, too.
The body is described with an allusion to another story: "Mr. Samuel Weare of Lyons Inn, whose 'throat they cut from ear to ear'" (HHC
13). (And if anyone can tell me the source of Mr. Samuel Weare, I shall be most grateful. Is he historical or fictional?). And here the project of deconstructing the mystery genre begins in earnest:
Harriet put the head down again and felt suddenly sick. She had written often enough about this kind of corpse, but meeting the thing in the flesh was quite different. She had not realized how butcherly the severed vessels would look, and she had not reckoned with the horrid halitus of blood, which steamed to her nostrils under the blazing sun.
Harriet is not encountering one of the discreet, almost Bakhtinianly-classical bodies beloved of her genre; this is a grotesque body (in both the dictionary and the Bakhtinian sense). Thus it is necessary for thematic reasons as well as plot reasons that the corpse still be streaming blood; it hammers home the non-conventionalized reality of the body of Paul Alexis.
But note Harriet's reaction. In her effort to pull herself together, she asks, "What would Lord Peter Wimsey do in such a case? Or, of course, Robert Templeton?" (HHC
14). Notice the indiscriminate coupling in Harriet's mind of Peter (a real detective within the secondary world of the novel) and Robert Templeton (a fictional detective belonging to a tertiary world of Harriet's own creating). This tells us, as readers, that on some level Peter and Robert Templeton are the same: they are both fictional detectives and can be treated as such.
Robert Templeton himself I find quite interesting (although I am grateful that DLS, unlike Ellery Queen, never wrote--or had written--the stories which her mystery-writer character produced, because I don't think I could stand Robert Templeton in direct discourse, so to speak). He gets referred to once in one of the other books (I think Busman's Honeymoon
, but it might be Gaudy Night
), but other than that he is clearly a device of this novel
. The two novels of Harriet's about whose plot we know anything (Death in the Pot
and Death 'Twixt Wind and Water
) are clearly not
Robert Templeton novels, and indeed I think the point of Wilfrid is to move Harriet away from writing the sort of books a Robert Templeton can inhabit. But for the purposes of HHC
, she needs to be a mystery writer with a series character, so that the novel may reflect upon itself.
You can tell that Robert Templeton is a constructed detective (see previous post
for what I mean by that), by his convenient lack of weaknesses and that "suit of rather loud plus-fours" (HHC
14) which indicates a perfunctory attempt at "local color" in characterization (like Ellery Queen's damned pince-nez or Hercule Poirot's nasty little mustache). And again, DLS brings her heroine smack up against the difference between murder in a genre mystery and murder in a novel (I'm avoiding saying "real life," because the world in HHC isn't
real life and isn't meant to be; but it is a world with a greater helping of reality than the conventional detective stories it is in dialogue with):
Robert Templeton would carefully examine the body and pronounce--
Quite so; Robert Templeton would examine the body. He was, indeed, notorious for the sang-froid with which he examined bodies of the most repulsive description. ... Harriet felt that she had never fully appreciated the superb nonchalance of her literary offspring.
Harriet may not be punished for being a sexually active woman, but she is distinctly being punished for being a mystery writer who has never thought her own stories through. The difference between how she would handle the situation in one of her own books and how she has to handle the situation in her own life is pointedly drawn for us, especially in the area of things she has allowed her detective to know without herself bothering to research:
Harriet wished she knew more about times and tides. If Robert Templeton had happened, in the course of his brilliant career, to investigate a sea-mystery, she would, of course, have had to look up information on this point. But she had always avoided sea-and-shore problems, just precisely on account of the labour involved. No doubt the perfect archetypal Robert Templeton knew all about it, but the knowledge was locked up within his shadowy and ideal brain. Well, how long had the man been dead, in any case?
This was a thing Robert Templeton would have known, too, for he had been through a course of medical studies among other things and, moreover, never went out with out a clinical thermometer and other suitable apparatus for testing the freshness or otherwise of bodies. But Harriet had no thermometer, nor, if she had had one, would she have known how to use it for the purpose. Robert Templeton was accustomed to say, airily, "Judging by the amount of rigor and the temperature of the body, I should put the time of death at such-and-such," without going into fiddling details about the degrees Fahrenheit registered by the instrument.
This is a cheerfully self-conscious exposure of the rhetorical tricks employed by mystery novelists to avoid having to go into the details of things they do not themselves know. It heightens Harriet's sense of helplessness and our own sense of the mystery genre as a fundamentally artificial construction. It also encourages us to examine the events of HHC
, as Harriet and Peter do, through consideration of other mystery stories we have read and our familiarity with the genre. Or, vice versa, to consider the mystery genre in light of the standards of HHC
Harriet does her best with the corpse, with two moments of human frailty (which are again held up against the standard of Robert Templeton, that Platonic Ideal of the genre detective): she cannot bring herself to search the body thoroughly, and she is not strong enough to drag it above the high tide line. But she does a remarkably good job--as Umpelty will remark on, and Harriet will explain by saying she writes detective novels, again the ouroborous-like nature of fiction and reality in HHC
--and leaves corpse, rock, and shore to look for help and to end Chapter One.
Next up, Have His Carcase
3: however much farther I get before I feel like I have a post's worth of material.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Have His Carcase
. 1932. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, n.d.