skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
[personal profile] skygiants
I have finished rereading the back half of the Wimsey books and I have a fair number of opinions! BEAR WITH ME.

Let's start with Murder Must Advertise. Everyone writing dystopian fiction could take a few lessons from the way Sayers writes Her Dystopian Present: the machinery is soulless, the people working the machinery are anything but. "Advertising is the opiate of the masses! Here's an amusing workplace incident which the reader is bound to find effortlessly relatable, and by the way, the real murderer here is the grinding gears of capitalism."

On another note, I'm fairly sure the Harlequin parts of this book are singlehandedly responsible for, like, the entirety of Dorothy Dunnett. All of her everything. I leave it to the reader to determine whether this was a good thing for humankind on the whole -- though we do then have it to thank for Megan Whalen Turner and Elizabeth Wein, among others. Nonetheless, I went into this Sayers reread with a firm conviction that Murder Must Advertise is the best Peter Wimsey book, and you can fight me on it if you want, but that conviction remains intact.

Someone may say, at this juncture, but what about Gaudy Night? Listen: Gaudy Night is beautiful and I love it and I have SO MUCH beef with it. I got in a long conversation on Twitter with [personal profile] izilen about this the other day, from which I am going to summarize the next bit of this post.

My beef with Gaudy Night actually goes back to Have His Carcase and the part in Gaudy Night where Peter and Harriet have a conversation that's like "gosh, we were awful to each other in Have His Carcase, aren't seaside towns vulgar, thank God we're now together in beautiful Oxford where we can have conversations that match the scenery." So for years -- as I think I mentioned in my last post -- I mostly remembered Have His Carcase as The One Peter And Harriet Are Embarrassed By, and didn't think much of it.

And this is deeply unfair to Have His Carcase, actually, because Harriet spends pretty much the whole book pushed up against her assumptions about 'vulgarity' and super uncomfortable about it -- "commercialization of human feelings is awful, but also all these gigolos and paid dancers and prostitutes are human beings with no other options and I don't know how to feel about it???" Like, the book as a whole doesn't know how to feel about it, but it recognizes all this as interesting and worth unpacking, and ends without any kind of impossibly tidy resolution; Peter and Harriet basically just pick up and jet out, because solving the murder doesn't actually solve any of the underlying problems, and they feel gross about it.

And then you get to Gaudy Night, and they dismiss the whole experience of Have His Carcase with great relief, rather than learning anything from it. "Well, that was embarrassing and uncomfortable, and now let's pretend it never happened." In that sense, the fact that Peter and Harriet can only properly achieve a meeting of the minds 'midst Oxford's dreaming spires, in that elite space where they converse in Latin quotations rather than ugly emotional truths, starts to feel almost like a retreat.

The other thing about Gaudy Night is that it raises the central question of the whole series -- the question of whether absolute intellectual honestly is always an absolute good -- and then it confuses the whole issue by tying it up with "BUT GENDER." 'How dare a woman destroy a man's career' is not the actual argument at stake, the actual argument is 'what are the ethics of balancing intangible principles with tangible, immediate harm to real humans' -- but Sayers isn't ready to have that fight straight out. If I had to make a guess a.) because she can't risk Peter losing that fight, she can't risk the conclusion that there might actually be problems with a dilettante aristocrat playing hell with people's lives because he's fascinated with mystery-solving and b.) because she can't risk losing that fight herself -- I think she needs to believe in the sacrosanct nature of those high Oxford principles as much as Harriet and Peter do. I mean, I don't think, I know, I guess, because she says as much in an essay. It's awfully frustrating, because it's a real argument and an argument worth having. And I think she could win it! I mean, she could convince me! But she'd need to actually have it first.

And then -- here's what really gets me -- in Busman's Honeymoon, she does it again! Exactly the same way! Harriet and Peter are all set to have that argument once more, the argument about the ethics of Truth Above All Else when it might literally mean the death of someone you like and who's trusted you with that truth, and then it suddenly gets dragged sideways into a spiral of Gender and Relationships and Possessiveness and Oh Darling Never Let Me Make You Be Less Than Who You Are, right, OK, fine, but that's not the question, Dorothy!

(Though it is a bit disconcerting, reading Dorothy's Thoughts On Relationships, and realizing how much of the stuff that Harriet circles around in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon I've internalized from reading these books at a formative age. I'm not sure all of it is stuff that I want, either, though I understand why Sayers, a female heterosexual in the 1940s, feels the need for a disconcerting strictness in her Rules For Healthy Relationships.)

Oh, lord, this entry is already long enough and I haven't even talked about way that Peter shows up in Gaudy Night and talks wearily for two pages about how heavy is the head that wears the crown of aristocracy and Harriet's like "ah, he's so much more appealing now that he's finally shown me his weakness!" and I'm like "really? because I'm pretty sure what you just saw were his Romantic Depths, and you got a lot more of his actual weakness in the previous books." Nor, relatedly, have I talked about the part where Harriet complains about giving her characters psychological depth and how it throws her books out of balance. Relatedly, here that an essay by Dorothy Sayers that [personal profile] whimsyful linked to me. I found it interesting, but not surprising -- I mean, she talks about doing pretty much all the things I thought she was doing, I just don't think she's necessarily right about them.

What else did I not talk about? Oh, Nine Tailors! I don't have a lot to say about Nine Tailors -- it's mostly well-done atmosphere, with characters playing second fiddle to all that ominous iconography of bells tolling and river flooding. I did remember Hilary Thorpe playing a much larger role than she actually does in the book, and was mildly surprised to realize that she only has about two scenes. But that might be on account of the fact that there are at least two Yuletide fics about her.

Date: 2017-05-11 03:36 am (UTC)
agonistes: (candygram)
From: [personal profile] agonistes
I think my opinions about Gaudy Night are colored by what my own strongest attachment is to the book, and that's the portrayal of a women's college surrounded by (and populated by) people who have weird and militaristic opinions about women's education, many of which boil down to "BUT GENDER," but many more of which, I would argue, boil down to "BUT CLASS."

(And, you know, what it's like to feel like you're fighting a whole bunch of people who don't want you, personally, to succeed without conforming to preset ideas of "interesting and valuable work," and dealing with the micro- and macroaggressions of people who don't think this little space where you can actually slow your roll long enough to breathe belongs in the world. That part, uh, rings very true.)

Time-wise... the books sync up with Woolf, and, like, still true: if a woman wants to write, she needs five hundred a year and a room of her own. She doesn't have to have it, but it helps. And yeah, Sayers could've done a lot more re. the ethics of playing with people's lives -- but at some point I'd argue that also becomes an issue of class privilege. It's a lot rarer to be in a position where you can do that if you're not relatively tall in the hierarchy.

So the question that raises for me (and/or Sayers and/or Harriet as her stand-in) is this: how can one navigate the democratization of space, in such a way as to practice the principles and ideals, without hurting other people and wreaking havoc on the existences of others? (I read that Sayers essay you linked to years upon years ago, so I remember only a few of the particulars, and it was also before I went to a women's college -- for the same project, incidentally, where I tracked down the collected newspaper pieces of Peter's work in the OSS during WWII.)

Idk if I have an actual point with all that -- except that maybe placing them in historical context* might clarify some things, and might not -- but I guess after all that tl;dr my question is this: why do you want Sayers to explicitly address these things, rather than just leaving those ends as loose and uncomfortable as they were and are in real life?

* which, if we're gonna have beef with Sayers: a little "BUT RACE" might've been good to include, Dot.
Edited Date: 2017-05-11 03:37 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-11 03:38 am (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
I agree about Murder Must Advertise, and honestly, it's great to see someone name it as the best Wimsey book. I came away from it thinking it was better than described, but in retrospect it seems to matter that the person who'd done the describing was then ± my current age and embittered in ways that made Gaudy Night's shiny spires especially attractive. Mirage-like, maybe. I guess I'm glad to have the luxury of not feeling so bitter in those ways.

Date: 2017-05-12 02:27 am (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
Agreed on both counts.

Date: 2017-05-11 03:57 am (UTC)
starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Aw, I think T9T is actually my favorite, though I do love Gaudy Night and MMA. Peter's modern everything in the medieval village is just so good, and the writing is brilliant, as is the structure. I think MMA, which I adore, falls down a little bit on structure. But they're all great.

Date: 2017-05-11 10:24 am (UTC)
antisoppist: (Harriet pink)
From: [personal profile] antisoppist
You also need to have grown up in East Anglia :-) It's all her childhood sense of place coming out.

Murder Must Advertise was the one she knocked out quickly, using the office setting she was familiar with, because she was under contract to produce a book to a deadline and she couldn't finish the Nine Tailors in time. I love Murder Must Advertise and feel it makes a lot of sense as a response to writer's block on Wilfred a novel in which she was trying to say deep and serious things!

[adds what was going to be a separate comment on here]
I don't think Peter and Harriet do ignore Have His Carcase in Gaudy Night because Harriet says she doesn't want to wipe out the past five years, and Peter says he needed to go through some sort of personal dismantling process to stop being the arrogant "I want" person of Strong Poison. It's clear they couldn't have married at the end of Strong Poison, or if they had it would have been dreadful (fic request) and it took five years to get them both to the point where they could. But what annoys me is that we don't see Peter's personal development in that intervening period. He says he's had to break down all his pride but when did he do that? Here I would like to see Murder Must Advertise as a vague drug-crazed mid-life crisis. Everyone is lying! What is real? What is fake? Who am I? Help! Drugs!
Edited (HTML idiocy) Date: 2017-05-11 10:24 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-05-11 06:33 pm (UTC)
whimsyful: arang_1 (Default)
From: [personal profile] whimsyful
It's clear they couldn't have married at the end of Strong Poison, or if they had it would have been dreadful (fic request)

Ooohh, that would be so interesting to read! It would be pretty awful, but written well it would force them both to face their issues head-on, and that dismantling process would be more visible, I think. *keeps this in mind for Yuletide*

Date: 2017-05-11 04:09 am (UTC)
raincitygirl: (Default)
From: [personal profile] raincitygirl
Murder Must Advertise is my favourite DLS book too! I love Gaudy Night, but it's not a book you can really appreciate unless you've first read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase, and anyway, it's got a lot more romance in it than I usually like in a mystery book (romance I only enjoy because DLS has spent the past few books building up to it). I love Have His Carcase as well, partly because it's the first time we get to read the narrative from Harriet's point of view. In Strong Poison she's more of an Unattainable Object than a character.

Date: 2017-05-11 04:44 am (UTC)
raincitygirl: (Default)
From: [personal profile] raincitygirl
They read GN first?????!!!!

Interesting!!! It never would've occurred to me that anybody would or could. i think it would indeed be a very different book when read as a standalone.

Date: 2017-05-11 06:24 am (UTC)
whimsyful: arang_1 (Default)
From: [personal profile] whimsyful
*raises hand* I was one the ppl who read Gaudy Night first! Picked it up at a used book store, fell in love with it despite not knowing any of the backstory, and tracked down the rest of the books as fast as I could. There was enough in GN for me to figure out the backstory re: Peter & Harriet, though when I went and read Strong Poison and the first half of Have His Carcase I did think "huh, they're a lot more pleasant to each other than I expected given all the deliberation and the emotional turmoil in GN".

Date: 2017-05-11 10:02 am (UTC)
antisoppist: (Harriet pink)
From: [personal profile] antisoppist
I think I was one of them. I tried The Nine Tailors when I was about 13 and scared myself to death by the time the body turned up - not helped by my mother's copy being the one with the severed hand in the bell rope on the cover. Then I tried Clouds of Witness in the school library when I was 17 and got scared by the floorplan of the house at the beginning (look I was spooked by weird things OK) and vowed never to read her again. Then my little sister got into the mini-series and came to visit me at university (we didn't have television at university in 1987) with our grandmother's copy of Gaudy Night and I got bored watching a cricket match and started reading it and pinched it off her and wouldn't let her take it home! I read Busman's Honeymoon out loud to her in the summer holidays because we were both fighting over it.

I liked Harriet and Peter annoyed me so for me it had to be that way round to get me into them at all. I read Busman's Honeymoon next, then Strong Poison, then Have his Carcase and after that went back to the beginning and read the rest because I could put up with early Peter if he knew he didn't stay that arrogant.

Date: 2017-05-11 02:16 pm (UTC)
nextian: From below, a woman and a flock of birds. (Default)
From: [personal profile] nextian
I did, and I hated it! Took me years to come back and realize that I was in love with it :p

Date: 2017-05-11 07:29 pm (UTC)
katta: Photo of Diane from Jake 2.0 with Jake's face showing on the computer monitor behind her, and the text Talk geeky to me. (Default)
From: [personal profile] katta
Gaudy Night may not have been my very first Wimsey - I can't remember - but it was definitely the first I read with Harriet in it. Which, yes, did affect my view of both that book and SP/HHC. It was always a romance with a foregone conclusion for me.

Date: 2017-05-13 12:42 pm (UTC)
aamcnamara: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aamcnamara
I read Gaudy Night before Strong Poison and Have His Carcase too! (I'm pretty sure I had read at least one other Wimsey book before.) It was definitely weird to go from Gaudy Night, where Harriet is such a defined and clearly alive character, to Strong Poison where she's basically just a foil who sits in an interview room and answers questions blankly. It made me wonder what people who had read Strong Poison first thought about Harriet, because I felt like I had to read between the lines of SP to see her personality in that book.

Filling in with Have His Carcase was also an odd experience, ditto what whimsyful said about the surprise of them actually being fairly decent to each other despite what Gaudy Night makes it sound like.

Date: 2017-05-12 02:28 am (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
*raises hand* GN was recommended to me; I went back and read everything else out of order.

At least I managed to read them before tackling Dunnett's Lymond? :) (All of this is 20+ years ago now.)

Date: 2017-05-11 06:30 am (UTC)
ceitfianna: (lost in a library)
From: [personal profile] ceitfianna
Thank you for capturing so well how uncomfortable Gaudy Night is with its class and gender stuff. I haven't reread Have His Carcase or Busman's Holiday for a while, I don't like Harriet and Peter. Troy and Alleyn are my favorite mystery couple and Murder Must Advertise is what I read when I need froth and office comedy.

Date: 2017-05-11 07:06 am (UTC)
whimsyful: arang_1 (Default)
From: [personal profile] whimsyful
I'm fairly sure the Harlequin parts of this book are singlehandedly responsible for, like, the entirety of Dorothy Dunnett. All of her everything. I leave it to the reader to determine whether this was a good thing for humankind on the whole

Ahaha, I think between Turner, Wein, Kay, Max Gladstone, Ellen Kushner etc. and all the authors they influenced or will influence in turn, it's a net positive...even though Dunnett is also indirectly responsible for all those fanon versions of Draco Malfoy, so mixed bag?

I think she needs to believe in the sacrosanct nature of those high Oxford principles as much as Harriet and Peter do
That's one of the parts I've grown out of since the age when I first read these books--the idealization of academia, and how it's considered completely separate from and superior to labour/other types of work. It's partly that that aspect hasn't aged very well, and partly the Sayer's views on class leaking through.

"really? because I'm pretty sure what you just saw were his Romantic Depths, and you got a lot more of his actual weakness in the previous books."
I think when Sayers wrote that she already planned to deliberately show Peter's weakness to make him more appealing like she said in the essay, so what ended up happening was that she either consciously or unconsciously wrote them as Weaknesses That Are Romantic instead of just plain character flaws. Granted, if she did, Peter & Harriet might not have gotten together (if they did at all) until they were both grey haired like she feared.

Oh God I've internalized so much from reading these books at a formative age. Even now that I see more of its flaws I'm pretty sure any successful relationship I try to write will have echoes from Sayers. It's going to be interesting once I receive my new copies and go on a reread.

Date: 2017-05-11 11:32 am (UTC)
littlerhymes: the fox and the prince (Default)
From: [personal profile] littlerhymes
Murder Must Advertise is the BEST. It's a fact.

This post crystallises a lot of the frustration I had with Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon which are ofc totally enjoyable and yet not at all the books I had imagined when people described them to me...

Date: 2017-05-14 05:33 am (UTC)
littlerhymes: the fox and the prince (Default)
From: [personal profile] littlerhymes
In general I was really surprised that Sayers isn't AT ALL like Agatha Christie or Doyle or that kind of thing, she's so much more interested in the sprawl and messiness of humans than the neat clockwork of a really well plotted mystery. Which is great! But yeah, not what I expected.

For those books in particular I was surprised that people seem to respond so, so - Idk, so emotionally to Harriet and Peter? Those bits were the least interesting parts for me me! I felt like the narration talks a big game about how they can now approach one another as rational adults but in practice doesn't really show that a lot...

Date: 2017-05-11 07:34 pm (UTC)
katta: Photo of Diane from Jake 2.0 with Jake's face showing on the computer monitor behind her, and the text Talk geeky to me. (Default)
From: [personal profile] katta
It's been so long since I read Sayers that I can't really bring anything intelligent to the discussion, but I really enjoyed your reviews anyway!

Murder Must Advertise is called "Mördande reklam" in Swedish, which translates roughly to "killer advertising". That term was then picked up a few years later by comedy song writer Ulf Peder Olrog, who wrote a song with the chorus, "You can sell anything with killer advertising / come buy our tinned porridge!" So now every time I see the book mention my brain immediately starts humming the song. (Link:

Date: 2017-05-14 08:28 am (UTC)
katta: Photo of Diane from Jake 2.0 with Jake's face showing on the computer monitor behind her, and the text Talk geeky to me. (Default)
From: [personal profile] katta
The song ends with the characters going to prison for mixing sawdust in their porridge, so that's quite suitable. :-)

Date: 2017-05-11 09:50 pm (UTC)
rushthatspeaks: (vriska: consider your question)
From: [personal profile] rushthatspeaks
I love Murder Must Advertise so much, and I fell desperately in love with Dian de Momerie, who deserves better on every level than either Peter or the text give her.

(Then I went off and read Dunnett and got to Oonagh O'Dwyer and was like OH GODDAMMIT, and honestly I have an urge to write a book someday in which this particular character DOES NOT FUCKING DIE FOR EVERYONE'S SINS.)

But mostly that's my only complaint about MMA, that Sayers buys the sexist bullshit about Dian de Momerie. It's so perfect otherwise.

Gaudy Night I'm not going to go into, we'd be here all week.

Date: 2017-05-12 04:59 am (UTC)
whimsyful: arang_1 (Default)
From: [personal profile] whimsyful
I was sad about Dian when I first read MMA years ago, and absolutely furious about Oonagh when I first read Lymond last year. I'd read your book!

Date: 2017-05-12 07:36 pm (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Very enjoyable post, even though I have not read any of the books! : ) It's a fact, book review/discussion is a pleasure of its own.

Where should one start, in the hypothetical case that I do decide to read them? At the very beginning?

Date: 2017-05-13 06:34 pm (UTC)
whimsyful: arang_1 (Default)
From: [personal profile] whimsyful
I'd say start at the beginning with Whose Body? and follow the order. Just skip The Five Red Herrings unless you really like train schedules.

Date: 2017-05-13 07:04 pm (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Thanks! : )

Date: 2017-05-13 01:10 pm (UTC)
aamcnamara: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aamcnamara
I have had the tab of Sayers' essay open for the past three days while I worked on finding the time to actually read it; now that I have, gosh. I hadn't realized just how much of Gaudy Night was Sayers' exact own preoccupations. I mean--I knew in general terms, but that essay really points up the one-to-one correlations.

And I very much like your thoughts about Gaudy Night. It IS quite telling that the commercialization of human emotion in Have His Carcase is, in a way, pitted against the intellectual principle without commercial or emotional aspects in Gaudy Night. There is a part of the argument missing there.

Also, like--the brilliant former student who's doing hard manual labor? Has also opted to sacrifice things to an intellectual principle, it's just a different principle. Yes, there is some "oh I must do what my husband says/does" in there, but there is also a principled stand on labor and working with the land as important and material concern.

Which never really comes back; in Busman's Honeymoon there are people who work with/on the land but Harriet has been transcended out of their class via her marriage (but she knows everyone's name, because she is (set up to be) One Of The Good Ones). She does garden briefly in that book but that is it. So she's adapting to being part of his socioeconomic class, if in her own way; but he never adapts to being part of her socioeconomic class. He never has to.

(So now I'm thinking about Gaudy Night as, in part, Harriet getting accultured to that class-enabled retreat from the world such that she is able to imagine herself into Peter's world. Because before that she feels very out of place in his world, the fancy restaurant they go to early on in the book for instance, and that's part of her discomfort with the notion of marrying him as well as the gratitude piece and etc.)

This comment is getting long, oh no, but I am certainly going to keep thinking about this! Thank you for your contemplation-inspiring thoughts!

Date: 2017-05-13 01:14 pm (UTC)
aamcnamara: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aamcnamara
(OH AND if there were better workers' rights and/or a better societal structure the manual labor maybe wouldn't be SO taxing as to take up the entirety of that former student's mental energy--but Harriet never questions that at all, it's one or the other and no in-betweens or third choices. Okay now I'm really going to stop.)

Date: 2017-05-14 02:21 am (UTC)
aamcnamara: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aamcnamara
I suspect at the time Sayers was writing the Pure Intellectual Principle and the class part may have been more inextricable from gender than they currently are, which does muddy things rather. It is nice to think that perhaps someday class will not be as inextricable too, decades on from now.

The Murder Must Advertise point is also interesting because the other addendum I was thinking about (but did not come back to add because I had already written so much XD) is that it's handy for Sayers that Harriet's parents are dead, because Peter does so much goddamn condescending in Busman's Honeymoon and you know Harriet's parents were just exactly like everyone else in that town... a little more middle class, yes, but still! And Peter is condescending in part because It Is His Place and he is very good at playing roles; but what role could he have played meeting Harriet's parents? Clearly, as you point out, we know from Murder Must Advertise that he can play an equal role with people in Harriet's sort of social position, but I feel like Peter's razor sharp awareness of People And Their Places In Society means that he can only play that equal role when no one knows that he's Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. I'm just not sure if that's a Peter thing or if that's a how-Sayers-thinks-the-world-works thing.

...and this is relevant to the Peter-and-Harriet story because I think Harriet can take "ah, Peter is playing the Lord to the villagers" a whole heck of a lot better than she would take "oh, Peter is playing the Lord to my father and mother." Whatever her own personal feelings or relationship to her parents might be in this, uh, AU I guess I've created.

As things are, Oxford is the stand-in for her parents, inasmuch as Oxford gives her away at her wedding: so we have Oxford as legitimizer of class mobility, again. There's a whole thesis in there about class and class mobility and socioeconomic status in Sayers' books, honestly.


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