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.
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