Harriet Vane, acquitted at a second trial of murdering her lover Philip Boyes (the story told in Strong Poison), is on a walking holiday in the south-west of England. She is a detective novelist, and as a result of the trial has found herself comparatively well-off, as well as attracting the rich and well-known Lord Peter Wimsey, who was instrumental in discovering Boyes’ real murderer in the previous novel.
After sitting down on the beach near Lesston Hoe, and a brief nap, she discovers the body of a man on a rock, horribly murdered by having had his throat cut. Suddenly realising that the tide is on the turn, and that she doesn’t have the strength to move the body, she does what she can by taking photographs with a small pocket camera, removes a shoe and his hat, and sets off to seek help and to inform the police. It being market day, she is singularly unsuccessful, and it takes several hours before she’s able to call the police.
She stays in Wilvercombe, a watering place kind of town, both to be on hand for the police (to avoid giving any impression of wanting to run away from the crime) and to investigate it herself. It’s soon obvious that the dead man was a Paul Alexis, employed as a dancer at the Resplendent hotel, and Harriet becomes acquainted with Mrs Weldon, a middle-aged widow who was in love with Paul Alexis, and whom he planned to marry. Mrs Weldon is determined to have his killer brought to justice, but it’s curiosity rather than justice (as well as wanting to clear her own name) which prompts Harriet to try her hand at real-life crime-solving. The following day, Lord Peter himself comes to Wilvercombe, having heard about the murder, and they determine to investigate together.
Harriet and Lord Peter have their own styles of detecting – and there’s an entertaining passage where they gently spoof then-contemporary fictional detectives – and the relationship between the two begun in Strong Poison is continued and develops. The plot does not depend on their relationship, but the conflicts between them do make the atmosphere of detection more difficult for them both. The plot is an interesting one, since Sayers makes it fairly obvious who the villains of the piece are, and why, but the pleasure of this relatively long novel is in the unravelling of how the murder was done. Red herrings are employed, but sparingly, and several pleasures about the book are the way Sayers carefully deals with all the clues – both the intended and the inadvertent – left, and the one thing about the victim which caused so much complication is entirely rational but unexpected (or at least, expected if one has been paying attention and has some medical knowledge).
Despite the fact that Sayers constructed the locations of her story to fit the plot (unlike Five Red Herrings, about which she wrote that the plot was invented to fit the location), they are well-realised.
“He left the break in the cliff to be explored on the return journey, and urged the mare to her best pace. She responded vigorously, and they made the final mile in fine style, the water spraying about them. Wimsey could see the farmer clearly now; he had the white horse tethered to the famous ring-bolt and was standing on the rock, watch conscientiously in hand, to time them.
“It was not until they were within a few score paces of the rock that the bay mare seemed to realise what was happening. The she started as of she had been shot, flung up her head and slewed round so violently that Wimsey, jerked nearly onto her neck by the plunge, was within an ace of being spun off altogether…”
Harriet becomes a real character the reader sees from the inside, rather than solely from Lord Peter’s viewpoint, and her circumstances and outlook on life are realistic and sympathetic. There’s not much romance in this book, what with all the bickering and arguing between Wimsey and Harriet (“the watering place atmosphere” as Wimsey terms it in a later book, Gaudy Night, giving rise to vulgarity), and there is plenty of detection in an old-fashioned sense – the part where Lord Peter determines the origin of the razor used to cut Paul Alexis’ throat, for example, shows both his skill at tracking down information from small clues and his knowledge of the upper class establishment. It’s a milieu that Harriet would not know or be able to penetrate.
Although one can appreciate this book without having read any of Sayers’ other Wimsey novels, it will make more sense if one has read Strong Poison first, at least to understand the background of the book and the origin of the relationship between the two main characters. Sayers also doesn’t flinch from gruesome description, but she is “sparing with corpses”: Paul Alexis’s is the only death to occur in the book. Sayers assumes that her readers are intelligent, and she sometimes doesn’t explain things or alludes to others without the direct explanations that other detective story writers would give.
Sayers is one of my favourite writers of detective fiction, and Have His Carcase is one of my favourite of her books: it’s recommended to anyone who likes detective novels.