Things are not going well at Harriet Vane's trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes – hearing the judge's summation, only the most unrealistic of minds could conclude that she is not guilty as charged.
One such mind, however, is that of Lord Peter Wimsey – the same Lord Peter who, normally a beacon of logic, unfailingly unspins the web of every criminal intrigue to which he brings to bear his intellectual powers, but who now, epitome of a bachelor that he has heretofore been, without so much as ever having personally met Harriet, is dead-set on marrying her. So when he tells his old friend (and soon-to-be brother in law) Chief Inspector Parker, who was in charge of the investigation, that Parker has made a mistake, the policeman is unsettled; despite the water-tight case he feels he has put together. "Where is the flaw?" he inquires gingerly. "There isn't one," Wimsey retorts. "Except that the girl's innocent."
Thus, the scene is set for the first entry in Sayers's Wimsey-Vane canon. And while Harriet is pining away in prison, dreading a jury verdict which, she feels, can only be delayed, not avoided entirely, and not entirely sure how to deal with the sudden attentions of a well-known member of the nobility, Wimsey busies himself with the search for Boyes's true murderer; whom he eventually finds with the help of his confidante Miss Climpson (whose presence in the jury box, unbeknownst to Harriet, has already proved instrumental in producing a hung jury despite the judge's damning summation) and her assistant, Miss Murchison; both of which ladies, while perfectly honorable, do not shrink from unconvential methods when called for in the pursuit of justice.
Harriet Vane is the thinly veiled alter ego of Dorothy Sayers herself, who, having created her "ideal man" in Lord Peter Wimsey, now proceeded to write herself into the series, thus exercising the novelist's privilege in making come true in fiction what has been denied them in their own life. Indeed, it is not only Harriet's character who is inspired by real life: so, too, is the man she is accused of having killed, who in turn is based on Dorothy Sayers's former lover, American novelist John Cournos, from whom Sayers separated over precisely the issue that, in the book, also leads to the break-up of Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes; namely, his wish for her to live together with him without being married. Significantly, while Sayers stuck to her denial and Cournos was ultimately the one to leave her, in the book Harriet Vane ultimately gives in to Boyes's insistence, and it is ultimately she who leaves him when he does offer her his hand in marriage after all, as she feels he has made a fool of her: It is anybody's guess, of course, whether the woman pulling out of the relationship is again Sayers playing "catch up" in fiction for what had not happened in real life. Certainly, too, it does not seem terribly far-fetched to see Boyes's death – whether or not at Harriet's hands – as Cournos getting his just deserts in Sayers's mind: The correspondence between the two novelists, contained in the first volume of Dorothy Sayers's letters (edited by Barbara Reynolds) reveals just how passionately Sayers felt about their separation.
Thankfully, however, Sayers was way too good a novelist to merely live out in fiction what was denied her in real life: Harriet Vane is a well-rounded character and Lord Peter's equal in every respect, and it is precisely this (in addition to the fact that, unlike the women he seems to have predominantly met so far, she does not – at least not visibly – weaken at the knees at the mere sight of him) which makes their relationship work. Sayers was also intelligent enough not to make Harriet herself a very easygoing character. "I imagine you come across a number of people who are disconcerted by the difference between what you do feel and what they fancy you ought to feel. It is fatal to pay the smallest attention to them," a well-meaning teacher tells Harriet in the third Wimsey-Vane book, Gaudy Night: "Detachment is a rare virtue, and vey few people find it lovable ... If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it – still more, because of it – that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself." The aforementioned comments are the teacher's comments on Harriet's proud response to being questioned for choosing to continue to publish novels (mysteries, at that) despite her own near-fatal brush with the criminal justice system: "I know what you're thinking – that anybody with proper sensitive feelings would rather scrub floors for a living. But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well. I don't see why proper feelings should prevent me from doing my proper job." And as Wimsey will have to learn, not even saving her from the gallows is going to win her hand, because marrying him for that reason would be marrying him for gratitude, not love, and that is something Harriet would never do.
Parker looked distressed. He had confidence in Wimsey's judgment, and, in spite of his own interior certainty, he felt shaken.
"My dear man, where's the flaw in [this case]?"
"There isn't one ... There's nothing wrong about it at all, except that the girl's innocent."
"Philip wasn't the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn't stand being made a fool of. I couldn't stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn't believe in marriage –and then it turned out that it was a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough. Well, it wasn't. I didn't like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize."
"Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be."
"Do you know how to pick a lock?"
"Not in the least, I'm afraid."
"I often wonder what we go to school for," said Wimsey."
"There is something about wills which brings out the worst side of human nature. People who under ordinary circumstances are perfectly upright and amiable, go as curly as corkscrews and foam at the mouth, whenever they hear the words 'I devise and bequeath."
"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood."
(One character on another:)
"Don't you know that I passionately dote on every chin on his face?"
Salcombe Hardy groaned: "How long, O Lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother's knee."
"I say – I've thought of a good plot for a detective story."
"Top-hole. You know, the sort that people bring out and say 'I've often thought of doing it myself, if only I could find time to sit down and write it.' I gather that sitting down is all that is necessary for producing masterpieces."