One day, after a sandwich and a quick nap on the beach, Harriet notices what looks like a man, lying atop a lone rock standing in the distance at the low tide mark. Being moderately civic minded she heads on over--figuring at first that the person had fallen asleep and was in danger of sunburn. She discovers instead a bloody corpse, its throat cut. Looks like a suicide, Harriet thinks climbing up. But the tide is turning, and she realizes that she needs to do something before she herself is trapped by the rising water level. She hasn't the strength to drag the body off the rock and up to higher ground, so she decides to document the situation as best she can, calling on the detection skills a là the hero of her own crime novels. She gathers evidence and photographs the body. As the tide laps at the base of the rock, she descends and heads off to call the local police. But finding a phone in the remote countryside, where there are few homesteads and fewer people, proves difficult. She marches about, following rural lanes, wasting valuable time following false leads towards the ever elusive telephone. Predictably, by the time Harriet gets her message to the local police, the corpse has washed out to sea, as she knew it would. For a moment, I thought, A-ha, this is going to be about nobody believe Harriet's story, or Harriet herself being accused of murder--something like that old film Blow Up maybe. But I was wrong. Thanks to Harriet's skill with the camera, the owner of the body is soon identified: he's Paul Alexis, dancing instructor at the tawdry Resplendent Hotel by the seaside, a gigolo, an artiste who preys on silly rich widows. Not a very candidate for suicide in fact, though the evidence of murder is slim.
Lord Peter appears on the scene. He and Harriet team up, sleuthing together, quarreling about his proposals, and there's much fun to be had as Harriet's feminist and independent nature always assumes the worst. But detection wins out, they focus on solving the crime and together gradually solve Sayers' very complicated puzzle, a puzzle involving time tables, replacement codes, false beards, pretenders to the Russian throne, Bolshevik spies, and perfect (actually too perfect) alibis. It's an enjoyable read, a bit of merriment between the sexes with some good Sherlockian sleuthing. Inspector Parker turns up to "assist" the bumbling local police (he's now married to Peter's sister Mary), while the stolid, steady-on Bunter (in disguise) follows a suspect (also in disguise) in and out of the movie theater, up and down and around town, in and out of bathrooms. Much detail and an abundance of evidence is gathered, none of which coheres, of course, until the very end. One has suspicions about whodunit and the Why, but the How? Well, that's made impossible to guess--so it all works very well.
I quibbled a bit about the rather too many pages, I thought, devoted to unlocking the replacement code in that letter--I admit to skimming, suspecting that the pages I missed might well contain useful instructions for how it all works, spoiled I suppose by the knowledge that it's now all on the Internet if I cared enough. Overall? I felt Sayers has reached her own kind of high water mark in the construction and resolution of impossibly complicated plots. The book becomes in fact a sort of a satire on itself, on the zealous mystery writers who concoct ever trickier and trickier plots. Perhaps this is in fact the reason for introducing us to Harriet Vane, the crime novelist turned detective. At any rate, I'm rather glad Harriet has appeared to distract Peter from his infinite Bertie Wooster sillies. If memory serves, the next four (last four) Sayers books make a happy shift away from the tricky acrostic type mystery to a more psychological mode. Then comes, as Dorothy Sayers fans know, comes the major shift away from murder mystery to the mysteries of religion and theology where she spends the rest of her career.