Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lord Peter Wimsey

In the desperate rush of finishing midterm papers before the two week break from university, I haven't finished either of the vintage novels I was planning on writing about this month. Instead I'll talk about my favourite detective.
Dorothy L. Sayers' wonderful creation of Lord Peter Wimsey, DSO first appeared in 1923 and throughout the course of just eleven novels and some short stories, Miss Sayers presented a fully formed and rounded character who possessed a logical, deductive mind underneath a carefully constructed foppish mask (modelled after Bertie Wooster) intended to make people believe that he was the stereotype of the upper-class twit and wouldn't suspect that he was investigating a crime. His monocle was actually a highly powerful magnifying glass. Lord Peter was not without his faults- he sometimes followed the red herrings and missed vital clues and he had had a bad experience with a girl while at Oxford before the War and that, combined with shell shock, led him to bury his emotions at times. However, he was a charming, sartorial, highly skilled detective, collector of antique books, historian, a great wit, knew loads of interesting people from all walks of life and possessed a vast knowledge and taste for sherry, port, wine and good food. He was also incredibly loyal and trustworthy and so was often called upon by the Government to smooth over diplomatic relations.
I've spoken before about how I don't like reading Agatha Christie's books. This is largely because she clearly hated not only her great detective Poirot (don't read the books, just watch David Suchet) but also the mystery genre itself. I think she would have preferred writing melodrama (but couldn't because there was less money in that genre) and would often spend most of a novel writing a melodramatic romance between two rather dull characters and forget that there was a murderer to find. Miss Sayers, however, clearly cared about developing Lord Peter and loved writing about his adventures. So much so that she modelled the character of Harriet Vane after herself. Over the course of three novels, Lord Peter falls in love with and pursues Harriet to try to win her over, because she is his brilliant and intellectual equal and that is what he wants in a wife and companion.
The other reason why I love reading these books is because they are not just pure detective stories. Other writers of the Golden Age of Mystery simply kept their plots to a crime, suspects, red herrings and clues. Miss Sayers, however, took great care in actually crafting each of her plots into a wonderfully constructed and enjoyable novel and elevated the detective story to the realm of literature. Her three greatest works are:
  1. Murder Must Advertise. If you like Mad Men then you must read this before season 4 starts! Miss Sayers worked as a copywriter for more than a decade (she coined the phrase "it pays to advertise") and explains all about the advertising world and how easy it is to work in. Also included with the murder are the Bright Young Things set, cocaine smuggling, fast cars and blackmail. It makes for a very exciting and funny read!
  2. The Nine Tailors. Although all of her novels are educational, you learn the most from this one. The crimes themselves are not the major source of the action, rather it's just one of the most mysterious mysteries ever written. It's a cryptic puzzle about some missing jewels and the key to their location has to do with the system of ringing church bells. However, the novel, brilliantly inventive as it is, does tend to get bogged down by Miss Sayers' knowledge of bell ringing, so you should only read it if you're keen on solving puzzles.
  3. Gaudy Night. There is a horrendous series of crimes in this novel, but that's not the main point. The novel itself is more of a character study of Lord Peter and Harriet, their developing romance and how Lord Peter is viewed by women, especially by Harriet, who is slowly starting to see him as the reader has over the previous nine novels. I shan't tell you how it ends, but you'll love it!
Here is the complete list of his novels, which can be read in any order, except for the ones with Harriet, which only make sense if they are read in their proper order.
  • Whose Body? 1923 (a body is found where it shouldn't be)
  • Clouds of Witness 1926 (The Duke of Denver, Lord Peter's brother, goes on trial for the murder of their younger sister's boyfriend)
  • Unnatural Death 1927 (shows just how easy murdering is)
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 1928 (Blogged)
  • Lord Peter Views the Body 1928 (12 short stories)
  • Strong Poison 1930 (introduces Harriet Vane, who is on trial for murder)
  • Five Red Herrings 1931 (about six murder suspects living in an artist colony in Scotland)
  • Have His Carcase 1932 (Harriet finds a body while on holiday)
  • Murder Must Advertise 1933
  • The Nine Tailors 1934
  • Gaudy Night 1935
  • Busman's Honeymoon 1937 (also with Harriet and should be read last as it wraps the character of Lord Peter up)
There are also some other short stories that were published in Miss Sayer's other works, but they have all been collected into a single volume in the '70's. She refused to write about Lord Peter after the outbreak of WW2, because that war took all the fun out of writing detective stories.
If you aren't a great fan of mysteries, then please read at least a few of the Lord Peter stores, simply because Miss Sayers' was a genius at capturing the small details of interwar life, particularly fashion, the role of women and the correct use of slang (of which Lord Peter is a great fan) and really the whole zeitgeist of the interwar period.
Ian Carmichael had been the driving force behind adapting Miss Sayers' novels to television and the BBC made five of them in the '70's, which are readily available on DVD. He also played Lord Peter in radio adaptations of all of the novels, which are on CD and iTunes. Mr Carmichael was the only actor who was able to play Lord Peter (much like Jeremy Brett was the only one who could effectively play Holmes) because he fully understood the character and what Miss Sayers was trying to get across to the reader through him.
Don't watch the adaptations the BBC did in the '80's of the Harriet Vane novels with that blonde fellow, they're terrible and the costumes are even worse!
So, who's your favourite detective? Or character, if you're not that into mysteries.

No comments: