KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 21, 1999
Okay, so did the butler do it? You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. See if you can beat Lord Peter Wimsey to the chase. My husband did. Which just goes to show that, either my husband is a super-sleuth (which is true), or “Busman’s Honeymoon” is a tired old whodunit that isn’t all that hard to figure out (which is also true).
I have to confess that I kept calling it ‘Busman’s Holiday,’ which is a cliché for doing on vacation what you do for your vocation. And, not surprisingly, that’s just what happens. Lord Peter has just gotten married to his long-time flame and partner in crime-solving, Harriet Vane. There they are, on the first day of their honeymoon, and whaddaya know? Someone gets murdered. So, it’s not just a busman’s holiday,’ it’s a busman’s honeymoon. Get it? Very deep.
Anyway, there’s the usual list of likely suspects: from Lord Peter’s faithful and omnipresent butler Bunter to Mrs. Ruddle, the housekeeper at the English country home the newlyweds just purchased. Was it the gold-digging gardener, or his consort, the mousy spinster niece of the deceased? In this dusty British mystery, even the constable is suspicious. But Superintendent Kirk and Lord Peter are bound to dig deep, if they ever emerge from their deluge of one-upping, arcane literary allusions.
If you’ve never even heard of Lord Peter Wimsey, shame-shame-shame. There are whole websites devoted to the witty and charming, upper-class, monocled, gentleman-scholar-detective and his inventive creator, Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the most famous English mystery writers ever (she’s right up there with Agatha Christie). She wrote her first Wimsey mystery in 1923, and kept it up (at the pace of about 1-2 annually) for the next 15 years. “Busman’s Honeymoon,” both a novel and Sayers’ first play, was written in 1936.
Some said that the writer was so enamored of her creation that she devised a mystery-writer stand-in to marry him. The decidedly middle-class Harriet Vane first appeared in 1930, when the aristocratic dilettante-turned-detective cleared her of a murder charge. Finally, in the late ‘30s, the couple married. And the rest is…. in “Busman’s Honeymoon,” one of the very last of the Lord Peter puzzlers.
The Lamb’s Players production is set in an appropriately aging, well-worn English drawing room, of sorts. And this is a drawing-room mystery, if you will, or a mystery of manners. All those English issues of class and station; so tedious. But it’s endlessly fascinating to marvel at the various strata represented in the story, each with its own unique dialect. Some of the actors are better at this than others.
David Cochran Heath is effortlessly upper-crust as Lord Peter, just like his trusty valet, played by Doren Elias with ramrod posture and supercilious efficiency. James Pascarella is a hoot as the cockney chimney sweep and Chris Reber has a thrilling, trilling brogue as the Scottish creditor, Mr. MacBride. Cynthia Gerber does fine with the thankless role of Lady Harriet, who’s a stratum or so below her new husband. Paul Eggington is credibly stooped and avuncular as yet another in his portrayals of prelates. Mary Miller is excellent as the sad and spouseless Miss Twitterton. And her husband, director Jeffrey Miller, keeps things humming right along – if you like this sort of thing.
Best of all is the very detailed scenic design, the MFA thesis project of SDSU student J. Michael Desper. If it were up to me, he’d get his degree post-haste. With its little rotting staircase and threadbare furniture, its odd assortment of bric-a-bracs everywhere, the set provides the most interest value of the evening, giving rise to all sorts of conjectures about the possible murder weapon.
There’s actually such a drawn-out setup of villainy that the murderer comes as no great surprise. And the particulars of the scoundrel’s motivation are really rather ho-hum. But if you fancy yourself a sandlot Sherlock, you’ll love Sayers’ inveterate adherence to the ‘fair-play rule’: “Every clue must be shown at the same time to the public and to the detective, so that both have an equal chance to solve the problem.” So, if you like your detective tales more musty than mysterious, if you don’t mind a less-than-mind-boggling conundrum, go get a clue from “Busman’s Honeymoon.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.