Petter Avén's Reviews > Busman's Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
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Sep 03, 2012

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As a young boy, I used to love mystery fiction. Enid Blyton’s books were among my favorites. Somehow, that love faded as I grew up, and my literary preferences turned to other genres. As an adult I find myself, rather to my confusion, completely out of love for crime and mystery novels. How did I become so very disenchanted? Was it by natural evolution of my tastes or because I had come across literature that changed my mind? To this day I still do not know the answer, but I am sure about my opinions in regard to the genre and setting to which Busman’s Honeymoon belongs.
What I think my negative feelings owe most to is an almost complete lack of interest in the plot. A certain amount of mystery is usually fine by me, but not when the stakes, in my opinion, are so very low. I simply do not care who murdered Noakes. It sounds callous to me, even as I write it, but it is the honest truth. Especially as it turns out to be a crude and lowly plot by a gardener, Crutchley, to marry his victim’s niece for her inherited money. To a reader who always itches for the mystery solving itself, regardless of other causes, this plot may work out fine. I need more.

Fortunately, there are other aspects to Busman’s Honeymoon to consider. For instance, the “low stakes” somehow makes it easier for me to understand Peter’s bad conscience for revealing the murderer and thereby send him to the gallows. What was it all for? Justice would probably be the automatic answer: Crutchley committed a terrible crime in cold blood, and Noakes did not deserve to die even if he was an unlikable fellow. There is also the risk that more murders could follow if justice would not be done. But does this mean that death is just punishment for Crutchley? I do not know for certain what Sayers herself thought of the death penalty, but it seems obvious through the feelings, thoughts and actions she gives her character Peter that she thinks it an important moral issue. The story does not end with a common cheer at the capture of the murderer, but with quiet and even sad contemplation. Peter has been through a lot; both in the events of all of Sayers’ previous novels and earlier, as an officer during the Great War. The hardships he has endured have left very deep marks on him, even though he usually manages to hide them. I think the most important aspect of the plot in Busman’s Honeymoon is the question of capital punishment as part of the judicial system.

A for most modern readers almost antique aspect of Busman’s Honeymoon is that of clearly visible social class divisions. In no character does this come more into play than in Mervyn Bunter, who has been a friend and at the same time servant of Peter Wimsey ever since their common war years. Bunter does not appear to reflect on class as an issue, but accepts things as they are. He worries a great deal more that his master’s marriage could change things between them; that Peter will rely more on his wife Harriet from now on. Bunter is at the end of the novel much relieved to find that Peter keeps relying on him as he has before. The issue of how longtime friendships and partnerships can be put under strain when change comes is an eternal one, and most of us can relate to it in some way. That Peter and Bunter can remain on unequal footing in spite of their long friendship is very interesting; I would have thought that genuinely close personal ties between two adults makes commanding and servile attitudes untenable in the long run, especially in the light of their shared adventures. The class differences that permeate the setting of Busman’s Honeymoon were quite normal in Sayers’ day, and she is obviously conservative in her acceptance of them. No socialist she.

Peter and Harriet’s relationship is one of the fundamentals in Busman’s Honeymoon. In fact, its importance often seems to eclipse that of the murder plot. In my very personal opinion I say; rightly so. The intricacy of their relationship, which seems to stretch a few novels back in time although nowhere near the beginning of Peter and Bunter’s teamwork, is much more interesting than the possible solution of the murder mystery. Even though this is the only Sayers’ novel I have ever read, I feel that most readers, and especially those who have followed the characters from the very beginning, would care more about what happens to them and how they think and feel than if they are ultimately successful investigators in every case. An interesting alternative would have been for Sayers to let her characters fail a mission, just to check on the readers’ reactions.

The characters are, individually and in their relationships with each other, rather fascinating. They are all clearly children of their time and mostly content with the status quo of the world, which makes aspects like class and gender into issues only to us later readers and not to them. Peter and Bunter I have already expressed some thoughts about, both in regard to themselves and to each other. Harriet is obviously rather more revolutionary in the way she acts than the two men, since she takes initiatives that are in breach of the confining code of conduct usually demanded by the 1930s society on ladies. It could be argued that Sayers in Harriet created something that in modern fan fiction terms is called a “Mary Sue”; that in essence the character is an idealized version of the author. While I am personally unconvinced that this is the case, there are some facts that reinforce the claim. Harriet may not be a perfect person, which Mary Sues tend to be, but that could owe to a culture of modesty and with ideals that differ from those of latter day readers. Harriet does seem to get her way most of the time and, perhaps most revealing of all, has managed to get her hands on prince Charming himself. If so, then I readily forgive it: Sayers has managed to create true chemistry between Peter and Harriet, so there is nothing that seems strange about them hooking up after their shared adventures prior to Busman’s Honeymoon. Besides, it is not as if I disapprove of active female characters considering the set gender roles of the times. That Harriet sticks out a bit from the social norm does not, in my opinion, make her deserving of getting branded a “Mary Sue”. She is a believable and likeable character with depth, not some wish-fulfilling, cardboard cutout heroine whose sole reason for existing is to steal the spotlights and get laid with the canon hero.

I would like to round this analysis off with a few reflections on the language and style of writing of Busman’s Honeymoon. Since the reader of today is seven decades removed from the setting, I believe the old-fashioned language in the novel, especially the dialogue, to be very important for the immersion in the story’s culture and for the realism of the characters. The descriptions of environments are also very well done, and here I am reminded by J.R.R. Tolkien’s style. Maybe this was a common strength among authors of that time and generation, and perhaps particular to England? I have no facts backing this up, and so it is not even a hypothesis on my part but merely a question born of curiosity. The drawn out ending is yet another similarity between Busman’s Honeymoon and The Return of the King, but while my preferences make me gravitate towards the latter novel, the former should have been cut shorter after the resolution of the plot. The long epilogue and its content is yet more proof that it is the lives of the characters in general that is the most important and that the murder mystery was just a roadkill along the highway – a tragedy to be sure, but life for Peter, Harriet and Bunter goes on.
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