Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane marry and go to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, an old farmhouse in Hertfordshire which he has bought her as a present. The honeymoon is intended as a break from their usual routine of solving crimes (him) and writing about them (her), but it turns into a murder investigation when the seller of the house is found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with severe head injuries.
Explanation of the novel's title
A "busman's holiday" is a holiday spent by a bus driver travelling on a bus: it is no break from his usual routine. By analogy, anyone who spends his holiday doing his normal job is taking a "busman's holiday".
After an engagement of a few months following the events at the end of Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane marry. They plan to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, an old farmhouse in Harriet's native Hertfordshire which Wimsey has bought for her, and they abscond from the wedding reception, evading the assembled reporters.
Arriving late at night, they're surprised to find the house locked up and not prepared for them. They gain access and spend their wedding night there, but next morning they discover the former owner, Noakes, dead in the cellar with head injuries. The quiet honeymoon is ruined as a murder investigation begins and the house fills with policemen, reporters, and brokers' men distraining Noakes' hideous furniture.
Noakes was an unpopular man, a miser and (it turns out) a blackmailer. He was assumed to be well off, but it transpires that he was bankrupt, owed large amounts of money, and was planning to flee his creditors with the cash paid for Talboys. The house had been locked and bolted when the newly-weds arrived, and medical evidence seems to rule out an accident, so it seems he was attacked in the house and died later, having somehow locked up after his attacker. The suspects include Noakes' niece, Mrs Ruddle (his neighbour and cleaning lady), Frank Crutchley, a local garage mechanic who additionally tended Noakes' garden, and the local police constable, who was his blackmail victim.
Peter's and Harriet's relationship, always complex and painfully negotiated, is resolved throughout the process of catching the murderer and bringing him to justice. In a final scene, in which almost the entire cast of characters is gathered in the front room of Talboys, reflecting the novel's origin as a work for the stage, the killer turns out to be Crutchley. He planned to marry Noakes' somewhat elderly niece and get his hands on the money he had left her in his will. He set a booby trap with a weighted plant pot on a chain, which was triggered by the victim opening the radio cabinet after locking up for the night. Wimsey's reaction to the case – his arrangement for the defendant to be represented by top defence counsel; his guilt at condemning a man to be hanged; the return of his shell-shock – dominate the final chapters of the book. It is mentioned that Wimsey had previously additionally suffered similar pangs of conscience when additional murderers had been sent to the gallows. His deep remorse and guilt at having caused Crutchley to be executed leave doubt as to whether he would undertake further murder investigations – and in fact Sayers wrote no further Wimsey novels after this one.
The 1942 short storey Talboys, the quite last Wimsey fiction produced by Sayers, is both a sequel to the present book, in having the same location and a few of the same village characters, and an antithesis in being lighthearted and having no crime worse than the theft of a few peaches from a neighbour's garden.
Characters in "Busman's Honeymoon"
- Lord Peter Wimsey – protagonist, an aristocratic amateur detective
- Harriet Vane, now Lady Peter Wimsey – protagonist, a mystery writer, wife of Lord Peter
- Mervyn Bunter – Lord Peter's manservant
- Honoria Lucasta, Dowager Duchess of Denver – Lord Peter's mother
- William Noakes – previous owner of Talboys and murder victim
- Miss Agnes Twitterton – a spinster niece of the murdered man
- Frank Crutchley – a motor mechanic and gardener
- Mrs Martha Ruddle – neighbour of Noakes and his cleaning lady
- Bert Ruddle – her son
- Chief Superintendent Kirk – Hertfordshire CID
- Joseph Sellon – the local police constable
- The Reverend Simon Goodacre - Vicar of Paggleham
Literary significance and criticism
"Not near the top of her form, but remarkable as a treatment of the newly wedded and bedded pair of eccentrics ... with Bunter in the offing and three local characters, mainly comic. Peter's mother – Dowager Duchess of Denver – Peter's sister, John Donne, a case of vintage port, and the handling of "corroded sut" provide plenty of garnishing for an indifferent murder, even if we weren't additionally given an idea of Lord Peter's sexual tastes and powers under trying circumstances."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
Lifeline Theatre (Chicago, Illinois) presented an original adaptation of Busman's Honeymoon in the spring and summer of 2009. Frances Limoncelli adapted the script from Dorothy Sayers' novel. The show was directed by Paul Holmquist. Busman's Honeymoon was preceded by adaptations of Whose Body?, Strong Poison, and Gaudy Night (all adapted by Frances Limoncelli and produced at Lifeline Theatre).