Have His Carcase

Have His Carcase is a 1932 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and her second novel in which Harriet Vane appears.

Plot outline

Harriet Vane, author of crime and mystery novels, goes off on a hiking holiday. She finds a fresh corpse on a lonely beach, and although she is able to collect photos and evidence, the body is washed away before it can be recovered. The plot concerns the efforts of the local police, assisted by Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey, to identify the dead man, recover his body, determine whether his death was suicide or murder, and if the latter, to unmask the killer. The relationship between Harriet and Wimsey, which began in difficult circumstances in Strong Poison, develops further during their collaboration.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is a pun on the writ of Habeas Corpus, as the lack of a body for much of the novel's action is an important element of the plot.

Plot summary

During a hiking holiday after her acquittal on murder charges in Strong Poison, Harriet Vane discovers the body of a man, with his throat cut and the blood still liquid, on an isolated rock on the shore. There are no footprints in the sand other than the man's and Harriet's. She takes photos and preserves some evidence, but the corpse is washed away before she can fetch help.

Lord Peter arrives, and he and Harriet make investigations alongside the police. The dead man, Paul Alexis, a professional dancing partner at the local hotel, was of Russian extraction and engaged to a rich older widow. The death has been made to look like suicide, but Wimsey and Harriet discover that he was the victim of an ingenious and complex murder plot. The romantic Alexis believed himself a descendant of Russian royalty, and the widow's rather stupid son, appalled at the prospect of his mother's remarriage to a gigolo and the loss of his inheritance, conspired with a clever friend and his wife to play on Alexis's fantasies. Convinced that he was being called to return to Russia in triumph as the rightful Tsar, Alexis was lured to the rock and murdered by the son, who rode a horse along the beach through the incoming tide to avoid leaving tracks, whilst his friends supplied his alibi. The death was intended to look like suicide. However, Alexis suffers from haemophilia, and his unclotted blood leads to confusion over the time of death, which eventually assist with the unmasking of the conspirators.

During the novel Harriet and Peter's relationship is awkward. He wishes to marry her; he also intends to shield her by his presence from the police and the Press, who are inclined to suspect her because of her previous history. She steadfastly rejects his proposals and his support, convinced that any relationship is impossible because of her obligation to him and her damaged emotional state after her trial. However, they work and dine together in this novel and even dance together for the first time, breaking down some of the barriers between them as they solve the case, which among other things includes a blow-by-blow account of the cracking of a Playfair cipher.

Characters in Have His Carcase

  • Lord Peter Wimsey - protagonist, an aristocratic amateur detective
  • Miss Harriet Vane - protagonist, a novelist with whom Wimsey is in love, having saved her from the gallows
  • Paul Alexis (deceased) - a professional dancing partner at a hotel
  • Mrs Weldon - an elderly wealthy widow, engaged to the much younger Alexis
  • Henry Weldon - a farmer with money troubles, only son of Mrs Weldon
  • Haviland Martin - a suspicious camper who proves hard to trace
  • Bright - an itinerant hairdresser with a cloudy past who gives evidence to suggest Alexis's death was suicide
  • Inspector Umpelty - the local policeman in charge of the investigation

Allusions to actual history, geography and current science

In Chapter XXI Umpelty suggests he could detain Bright by charging him with an obscure offence: buying alcohol after closing time, for example. Wimsey replies: "First time I've heard a good word for Dora!" This is a reference to the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, known familiarly as DORA, which had given the government wide-ranging powers including severely restricting the hours during which alcohol could be sold. Some of DORA's provisions were repealed after the war, but those relating to the opening hours of pubs were among a number that remained in force.

Literary significance and criticism

"A great achievement, despite some critics' carping. The people, the motive, the cipher, and the detection are all topnotch. Here, too, is the first (and definitive) use of hemophilia as a misleading fact. And surely the son, the mother, and her self-deluded gigolo are definitive types."

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Have His Carcase was adapted for television in 1987 as part of a series starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane.

Famous quotes

  • "When I kiss you, it will be an important event — one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee." - Lord Peter Wimsey to Harriet Vane


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