Harriet Vane, the famous detective novelist and infamous murder suspect (recently acquitted), is on a walking tour of British coastal villages. One afternoon she has a picnic on the beach and drops off to sleep. When she awakens, she is shocked to discover the body of a dead man farther along the beach. The man’s throat has been cut, but there is only one set of footprints (which must belong to the corpse), so suicide is a possibility. But Harriet can’t help thinking it might be murder. She photographs the body — which will be washed away when the tide comes in — and goes for help. But much to Harriet’s chagrin, help eventually arrives in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eagerness to solve the mystery is compounded by his desire to spend more time with Harriet. As the two join forces to solve the mystery, they also struggle to define the nature and boundaries of their relationship.
The more I read of Dorothy L. Sayers, the more I come to realize that she is emphatically not for everyone. This book is a Golden Age mystery, but it’s far from a typical one. Sayers is unquestionably familiar with the tropes of the genre — indeed, Peter and Harriet have some fun mocking them in this book — but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in following them herself. As with many of her other books, the “whodunit” is not the main concern; rather, she spends most of her time setting up a seemingly impossible crime, then explaining at length how it was possible after all. It’s clever, but I must confess that it didn’t hold my attention. A chapter near the end, where Peter and Harriet decode a letter and painstakingly explain how the code works, is especially dull.
However, I still really liked this book, and the reason is that I’m fascinated by the development of the relationship between Peter and Harriet. There’s one scene in particular, where they leave aside their usual polite banter and express their real emotions, that hit me right in the gut. Much as my romantic heart wants them to get together, I completely understand Harriet’s ambivalence and her struggle to maintain her independence in the face of Peter’s relentless pursuit. I’m extremely eager to read Gaudy Night now, but since I’m going in publication order, I have a couple books in between. I think that when I reread the series (as I undoubtedly will), I’ll group all the Peter-and-Harriet books together.