Ellery Queen said: “Sayers has done more to add literary tone to crime fiction than most of her contemporaries.” This is undoubtedly true. Sayers writes better English than most of her contemporaries, and her literary erudition simply shines through her stories. They are sometimes more slow-moving than conventional whodunits, but if you take the time to savour the prose and the way the narrative is constructed, it can be a rewarding experience.
There is usually no “rabbit-out-of-the-hat” ending in novels by Sayers, when the detective assembles all the possible suspects and picks out the least likely one as the murderer. Her stories are usually more mundane and down to earth: we come to know the likely suspects halfway through the story. The mystery is exactly how the murder was committed – the method, the opportunity, the unbreakable alibi. This novel is no different in that sense. However, it does have major differences in the fact that it does not contain Lord Peter Wimsey, and is written almost totally in epistolary format.
George Harrison, amateur cook who dabbles in the use of unusual material to prepare his dishes, is found dead in “The Shack”, a remote country cottage in the village of Manaton in Devon. Apparently, it is an accident: he has eaten the poisonous Amanita muscaria, or “Fly Agaric”, in place of the edible Amanita rubescens (“Warty Caps”) – a common enough mistake as the fungi grow in the same area. He has been alone in the cottage for three days when the accident happened, so any question of foul play is ruled out.
But his son, Paul Harrison, is not convinced. He knows his dad too well to know that he won’t make a silly mistake like that. And when he comes to know that his young stepmother Margaret is having an intrigue with the painter Harwood Lathom who has been sharing their building, and this Lathom was staying with the unsuspecting Harrison at “The Shack” a couple of days before the death, his worst suspicions are aroused: he is sure it’s murder. But the problem is, Lathom has a cast-iron alibi, as though he knew in advance it would be needed. How Paul unravels exactly how George was poisoned forms the heart of the story.
Sayers has structured the novel in two parts: “Synthesis”, leading up to the crime, and “Analysis”, showing how the mystery is unravelled. It is presented in the form of a dossier prepared by Paul Harrison to Sir Gilbert Pugh, Director of Public Prosecution, comprising various letters in chronological order and statements from Harrison himself and John Munting, Lathom’s friend who is a bestselling author, to fill in the gaps. The letters are written by Agatha Milsom (Margaret Harrison’s companion) to her sister; John Munting to his bride-to-be; George Harrison to his son and Margaret Harrison to Harwood Lathom. The beauty of this format is that every one is an unreliable narrator!
Agatha Milsom, whose letters opens the narrative, is by her own confession “undergoing a difficult phase” and seeing a psychiatrist – the lady obviously has a severe case of hysteria, and a dangerous repressed sexuality. She sees George Harrison as a boor who is terrorising his poor wife. In the letters Munting writes to his wife, however, Harrison is shown in more favourable light as a traditional middle-aged husband who is played upon by a drama-queen wife. George’s letters to Paul (who is an engineer, away in Africa on an assignment), however, show us an indulgent if somewhat old-fashioned husband. The crux of the story comes when Agatha Milsom encounters a man on the staircase landing in the night during Harrison’s absence from the house: she is sure it is in John Munting, come down to steal her chastity, and creates an uproar. Harrison thinks it is Munting all right, but the target is his wife; and duly throws him out. The fact is that it was Lathom wearing Munting’s dressing gown, out for a midnight assignment with Margaret. Munting, in the true tradition of the gentleman, takes the rap for his friend by keeping his mouth shut.
The misunderstanding is cleared up to a certain extent after Agatha Milsom is institutionalised – George Harrison is willing to dismiss the whole episode as a figment of the companion’s diseased imagination. Lathom keeps up his affair with Margaret (her true nature is revealed in the letters she writes to Lathom, which are included here) as well as his friendship with the cuckolded husband: he gets so chummy with the latter so much as to stay for extended periods with him at his village hideaway. One day, he forces Munting to accompany him there against the better counsel of his conscience – to find Harrison having met his end in Agony.
The second part is mostly narrated by Paul Harrison and Munting, with brief letters and reports from the inquest inserted in between, and is the conventional amateur murder investigation. However, there is no detective with his brilliant intellect here, and the detection mostly consists of painstaking legwork. The solution, when it comes, is through fortuitous chance which nevertheless is entirely believable.
This is a very fast read: a good mystery, though not outstanding: and contains some brilliant characterisation. Sayers’ capability to write in four different voices must be commended. The opposing viewpoints presented in the juxtaposed letters wrong-foots the reader, not allowing the formation of an opinion on any of the characters. This forces one to keep an open mind until about midway in the book.