what the hell?

The Regrettable Documents in the Case

Even though I own a copy of The Documents in the Case—I bought it new at Barnes and Noble with my own money in high school, even—I'm virtually certain I had only read it once before, and literally the only thing that I remembered about it before I picked it up again was "something to do with mushrooms." (The cover illustration on the HarperCollins mass-market paperback is hilarious, with the pan full of mushrooms, one of which looks like a skull. Subtle!)

That meant that it was essentially a brand-new Dorothy L. Sayers book, a thing that would be priceless if I didn't strongly suspect that I hadn't much liked it the first time or I would have reread it before. Still, the prospect was intriguing enough for me to tackle it again.

At first it seems like maybe the Milsom and Munting correspondences are supposed to complement each other, building up a more complete picture of the Harrison household with their differing perspectives, but it gradually becomes clear that where their accounts of the same events differ, like the time that they encounter each other on the doorstep in the morning when neither of them are properly dressed, Jack's account is supposed to be correct and Miss Milsom is in fact throwing herself at him in an embarrassing way. It's interesting, because at the beginning the book is mostly their letters interleaved, but a couple of Miss Milsom's letters come first, so I keep wanting to think of her as a protagonist, and as being, if not correct, no more wrong than anyone else is. But no, she is shuffled off stage and into some kind of looney bin halfway through and her perspective abandoned. Since she was Mrs. Harrison's only champion, she will henceforth have none.

Jack Munting does initially come off as a more balanced observer. He's an outsider to the household, unlike Miss Milsom, who is embroiled in it, and his fiancée Elizabeth, whose half of the correspondence is not present but is suggested through Jack's responses, seems to check some of his chauvinism and make him aware of feminine points of view, at least at first. He clearly depicts Mr. and Mrs. Harrison as both inadvertently making each other miserable, and even though he personally likes Mr. Harrison better, he's pretty fair to Mrs. Harrison's side of the story at first. Then, somewhere along the way, he shifts his sympathies wholly to Mr. Harrison and begins to demonize Mrs. Harrison. He seems to think that her having a pregnancy scare—which he thinks she lied about, for some reason, because, you know, women—is a worse crime than the actual murder. At this point Jack is no longer corresponding with Elizabeth, since they are now married, and he is instead collaborating with Mr. Harrison's son from his previous marriage, who hates his stepmother to begin with, so they pretty much egg each other on. The whole thing just sort of slides into predictable and lazy misogyny, presumably not actually intentionally but still entirely unpleasantly.

My favorite part would have to be the very science-y bit at the end, which is so very science-y that Sayers gave one "Robert Eustace" (apparently actually a Dr. Eustace Barton) a shared byline for the whole book on the strength of it. In between the last time I read this book and now I learned about molecular chirality elsewhere, so this time the whole explanation actually made sense to me! Which isn't to say that that explanation wasn't sufficiently clear on its own, but I don't think I put that much effort into following it at the time.

Maybe in another seventeen years I will have forgotten this book again and I'll reread it and get annoyed a third time.

Also posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s)
  • Current Mood: annoyed annoyed