First published: UK, Gollancz, 1937; US, Harcourt Brace, 1937
Busman’s Honeymoon is the best example so far of Miss Sayers’s art of detective fiction, wherein the qualities of a first-rate novel – superb characterization, matchless dialogue, and genuine human insight – go hand in hand with flawless construction.
In this book, the incomparable Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are at last united as man and wife. The story opens with the wedding accomplished, with Harriet and Peter setting off in the Daimler for the old country estate which is her wedding present from her husband and their honeymoon destination. Bunter, the gentleman’s gentleman, is in the back of the car guarding with mattresses the two and a half dozen vintage port. They arrive at the manor late at night, find it curiously deserted and unready for their occupancy, but manage to install themselves comfortably in the ancient farmhouse. The next morning a terrifying discovery is made. The man from whom Lord Peter had purchased the house is found dead in the cellar – murdered.
Immediately they are plunged into the intricacies of another mystery, which readers will long remember as one of Miss Sayers’s finest.
The account of the Wimsey honeymoon, because there’s too much married bliss and not enough murder.
Too many quotations, too; one wishes Sayers had left Donne undone. Or witness the competition between Supt. Kirk and Wimsey, which surfaces at all the wrong moments. Bunter, too, has become as intolerable as his neurotic master, and one suffers from a hearty desire to throw him down the cellar stairs—in his defence, the Cockburn ’96 scene is excellent. So much for the comedy.
The detective business is introduced much too tardily. More than 100 pages pass by with neither head nor hair of a corpse, before Bunter and the charwoman find the corpse of the house’s previous owner in the cellar. The mystery suffers from the surrounding saccharine: there is some good detection, but it is done by Supt. Kirk rather than by the Wimseys, who are too busy billing and cooing to Don(ne) the detective mantle. Wimsey it is, though, who discovers the solution to the crime, which is as brilliant as the methods used to bring about Unnatural Death, or the Strong Poison that led to the Wimsey marriage. This feat is then spoilt by the superfluous Epithalamion.
Observer (Torquemada, 6th June 1937):
SOOTH SAYERS AND GOOD HARD KNOX
Oxford scores heavily this week with the publication of detective novels by Miss Dorothy L. Sayers and by Father Knox. Such an event is becoming too rare with the former, and has always been so with the latter. We all know that the pioneers of the well-written police story began their work before the War, and both these scholars are far too young to have been implicated; but each can claim a large part in setting a high standard to the post-War multitude. Each has a brain of first-class subtlety, a care for and mastery of English, and self-imposed rules of rigorous fairness.
Those who read Gaudy Night will remember that at the end of it Peter Wimsey had, after five years or so, broken down Harriet Vane’s resistance to his suit. Those who have seen or read the play, Busman’s Honeymoon, will know that at last Peter and Harriet marry and go down to a country cottage. Here the busman and his fair, quite unwittingly, begin honeymooning and making love over a nasty mess. The murdered body of Noakes, who should have been waiting to receive them, is discovered next day in the cellar, and Peter, bound by his reverence for the truth, stops to investigate instead of running away with his bride and his Bunter to some less distracted scene. There are two main probables and quite a few possibles, two red, and a few small pinkish fishes. Three entertaining acts are closely occupied with the decolouration of these, and the trapping of the murderer.
If we regard this present volume for the moment merely as a successful “novel of the play” I think we immediately find, in our memories of both, two points at which the tale has the better of the drama. The first is the How of the killing: on the stage and for the stage, it seemed to me to savour too much of the Mouse Trap. Marry, how? Physically. An eye wandering round the set from the first row of the stalls had a distinct advantage over an eye in the gallery; but in the narrative the mechanism is better and, indeed, admirably both hidden and betrayed. Again, though Miss Sayers has real humour and of a quality which never drags, it does not give a single sharp taste of pleasure and then pass on; it needs to be savoured. Thus, while we are mildly amused at the theatre by Bunter becoming “red in tooth and claw” at the agitation of the Cockburn ’96, and by Superintendent Kirk and the quotations, we are infinitely more tickled by the book’s elaboration of these things.
But Busman’s Honeymoon is something infinitely more than the novel of the play. Miss Sayers herself calls it “a love story with detective interruptions”, and says that it is “but the limbs and outward flourishes” to the play. I would rather put it this way: in a book of nearly 450 pages Miss Sayers has taken a good piece of theatrical staff work and made it blossom into a whole legion of roses. Peter, who was by no means always a living figure, and Harriet, whom we only began to get to know in Gaudy Night, become vividly and, I do not hesitate to say, beautifully alive as we watch them solving the main problem—that of their marriage. The first eighty pages, before the shadows fall, is fine lusty stuff. The whole narrative is Donne-impregnated, and we ask ourselves what other Dean of St. Paul’s has ever been so well qualified to impregnate a honeymoon. And the last twenty pages work up to a crescendo of poignancy as Harriet waits, agonising for an excruciated spirit to come to her, and it comes, and she finds that she can give it healing. Miss Sayers has exquisitely written a deeply understanding study of the first stage of some married loves.
Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 12th June 1937):
DETECTIVE IN LOVE
Leaving aside the play now running at the Comedy Theatre, with the readjustments that it must demand from those who have formed their own images of the Peter Wimseys (now married) and of Bunter, we can pronounce Busman’s Honeymoon, the book, a true and thrilling instalment in the serial history of these three very estimable persons. Miss Sayers is working away and away from the conventional detective story: some time ago she promised a “straight” novel—which has not yet come; perhaps Busman’s Honeymoon is a stepping-stone to such a higher thing. She calls it “a love story with detective interruptions”.
A love story—but unconventional even as that. It is the story of the honeymoon of a middle-aged man and a girl with a past. The honeymoon, after elaborate precautions to escape publicity, starts in a chaotically unprepared house in the country where, next morning, is discovered in the cellar a week-dead corpse: it ends with Lord Peter breaking down at the thought of the justice to which he has brought the murderer. (Miss Sayers seems to share Lord Peter’s compunction since she makes corpse and murderer as unamiable a pair of human beings as ever died by violence.) In between? Much ingenious detection, of course; much excellent village humour; some love-making on a high, even high-brow, but (unless we flatter humanity) immensely human plane; and a wealth of allusion that, at a Shakespeare-Milton-Tennyson level, delights the self-taught, aitchless police superintendent, but at more recondite moments would put Bartlett and
Sir Paul Harvey on their mettle. This, then, as a love story and a detective story, and much besides, is the Sayers mixture as never so successfully before.
Sat R of Lit (20th February 1937, 40w):
Mush-and-Murder sandwich. Grade A mush—for them as likes it—and 4 star mystery between pages 109 and 342. No likee mush.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 21st February 1937, 260w):
Busman’s Honeymoon has everything—mystery, comedy, love interest and drama—all served up in Dorothy Sayers’s best style, but the best chapters are those that come before the discovery of the corpse.
Springfield Republican (21st February 1937, 360w):
The story has the author’s usual blend of intelligence and literary charm. Yet it lacks something of the cohesiveness of recent works of hers in which the solution of a crime has been allied with interpretative portrayal of a community, a social situation or a tradition.
Christian Century (3rd March 1937, 120w):
To the mind of this reviewer, Dorothy Sayers is the most entertaining of detective-story writers, and Busman’s Honeymoon, next to The Nine Tailors, is her best novel. Not that Miss Sayers excels in the invention of murder mysteries, though she is as good as any in the manipulation of this somewhat mechanical though amusing game. But she covers the bones of her mystery stories with human flesh as no other writer does.
New Repub (Elizabeth Huling, 24th March 1937, 350w):
The middle-aged lovers are a pleasant pair, but novel readers may be forgiven for refusing to believe that two people just embarked on an experiment noble in purpose would converse almost exclusively in lines from the lesser-known works of the British poets. They may also feel that the author’s two-fisted reliance on la langue Française is affected and unnecessary. Come back to us, Miss Sayers. Anybody can write a novel.
Canadian Forum (Gilbert Norwood, April 1937, 440w):
My lips are of course sealed as regards the crime-solution, which is admirable, especially Constable Sellon’s part in it. The love-interest is fine mature stuff, the physical, intellectual, emotional elements being splendidly handled by two clear-sighted people who seek a wise and permanent way of living together. But it contains one artistic flaw: Miss Sayers attempts to make them fully express in language the depths of their hearts… Nevertheless, here is Miss Sayers’s finest book, written with delicious raciness, rich in fun, humour, quaintness, the thrills of crime and the equally pleasant thrills of innocence.