Thursday, January 18, 2007

Book Review: Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Stories

I recently had the happy experience of reading all of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery stories about Lord Peter Wimsey. The body of work consists of short stories, all of which are collected in a book entitled “Lord Peter Wimsey” and a series of full-length novels. The first Peter Wimsey story, “Whose Body,” appeared in the 1920s. It was followed by the novel “Clouds of Witness” in which Lord Peter helps his brother, the duke of Denver, who is accused of murder. “Clouds of Witness” was followed by “Unnatural Death,” “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” “Strong Poison,” “The Five Red Herrings,” “Have His Carcass,” “Murder Must Advertise,” “The Nine Tailors,” “Gaudy Night,” “Busman’s Honeymoon,” and a book (“Thrones, Dominations”) started by Dorothy Sayers and finished by mystery writer Jill Paton Walsh. Jill Paton Walsh also has an additional Wimsey novel (“A Presumption of Death”) using Dorothy Sayers’ characters, but I believe entirely written by Ms. Walsh. Interspersed with the novels was the appearance of 20 short stories involving Lord Peter.

The Lord Peter Wimsey stories are uniformly delightful. Peter Wimsey is the second child of an English aristocratic family. In the stories Lord Peter was born in the late 1800s. They follow his life up to the beginning of the Second World War. Wimsey is an interesting character. He attended Oxford and while not a physically large person, became successful in sports. He is not particularly handsome, but is regarded as a very eligible bachelor until his marriage to the mystery writer, Harriet Vane, in “Busman’s Honeymoon.” Lord Peter served as an officer in the British army during the First World War. During that time, he had a variety of traumatic experiences including a short episode of being buried by shell fire. This produced what today would be called post traumatic stress syndrome. Back then, they thought of it as a problem with “nerves.” Wimsey is aided in life by his extremely able butler who is also an amateur photographer, Bunter. True to his name, Wimsey loves frivolous conversation and is extremely humorous to read. Sadly, Dorothy Sayers’ great erudition results in her frequent use of untranslated quotes in Latin, medieval Italian, French and other languages. But the books are still enjoyable, even if you are not an expert in languages. I hope that some day a publisher will put together an annotated version of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories that will contain not only translations of all of these quotes, but footnotes as to their origins.

Wimsey was provided by his family with a legacy of real property in the city of London. Throughout the period of the stories, he is always well provided for financially because of his income from this property and his successful reinvestment of that income. He lives in upper class British life despite the coming of the Great Depression and some guilt over his privileged background. Wimsey’s strong sense of noblesse oblige leads to his work as an amateur detective despite his strong aversion to the unhappy fates that befall murderers once they have been found out. Wimsey greatly enjoys the hunt and happily sleuths his way through Ms. Sayers’ substantial body of writing. The stories have a humorous tone and are a picture into life in England in the 20s and 30s. Sayers mercilessly makes fun of nearly everyone. She points out the odd peculiarities of the English aristocrats. She mercilessly mocks people who are attracted both to fascism and to communism and provides very true-to-life pictures of the strange avant-garde art community of the radical left in depression era London. There are, to be sure, in the novels some small elements that we would find distasteful today. But these have to be understood as flowing from the cultural context of the day.

One of the most interesting things about the Lord Peter Wimsey stories is their clandestine Christian tone and drive. Dorothy Sayers was a committed Catholic Christian. In addition to her mystery stories, she also wrote a series of essays which were satirized higher criticism of the Bible and made apologetic arguments in favor of orthodox Christianity. Sayers considered her greatest work a translation of nearly all of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”

Sayers does not overtly put the Gospel into the Lord Peter stories. In fact, Lord Peter is often heard to deny that he would consider himself a strong Christian. But Peter’s actions belie his humble self evaluation. Even though Lord Peter is accused of being a man of the world and did apparently have mistresses during his youth, he nevertheless behaves in an extremely moral manner throughout all of the novels. While we hear of his alleged James Bond-like past, we do not see it nor do we see him engaging in any sort of actual immorality. What we do see is a man who is kind to everyone from all social classes, who is thoughtful, considerate, polite, and extremely giving. Wimsey makes arrangements to quietly, and in some cases secretly, meet the needs of many of the people in difficulty that he comes across during the stories. One of Wimsey’s most clever activities is his creation of a group that is the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker’s Street Irregulars. Wimsey has an agency that he calls the “the Cattery.” The Cattery is made up of a collection of women who Wimsey employs largely to undertake support activities for his amateur private detection. But these women are also found and employed based upon their need. They are spinsters, widows, divorcees, and other women who would easily find their lives destroyed by the economic and social circumstances of the l920s and 30s but for Wimsey’s decision to employ them in this special agency for his special purposes. Yet Wimsey’s kindness also allows them to keep their pride and dignity. Throughout the books, Wimsey’s actual actions and words are an example of the Christian virtues—love and charity.

Sayers also depicts Christians in her work. While Lord Peter does not claim to be a representative of Christianity, many of Peter’s closest friends and associates are strong evangelical Christians. One of them is a reformed safecracker who is now a member of the Salvation Army. Miss Climpson, the director of the Cattery, is also an evangelical believer though of high church sentiments. While Sayers is realistic and occasionally depicts Christians who are not altogether virtuous, she, unlike the modern media, is also unbiased and depicts Christians as basically good people. They may have quirks, but they are people who are in the process of sanctification rather than people who are representatives of the devil while claiming to be representatives of Christ.

Christianity also appears in Dorothy Sayers’ novels in a third way: the work of providence. In some of Sayers’ short stories, she actually makes mention of providence. But throughout her novels we see providence in action. Crime in outed and mysteries are solved not merely through the cleverness of Lord Peter or the hard work of the police, but through the inexplicable confluence of circumstances coming together. Sayers repeatedly depicts God’s providence at work in the world. Mistakes are made, people are discovered, evidence is uncovered as if by chance, but by chance so improbable as to require the directing hand of providence to intervene for an explanation. The active hand of providence is a strong theme throughout Sayers’ work. Sayers is also a respecter of people. While she can easily make fun of Bolsheviks or millionaires, she sees people with their quirks, peculiarities and strange beliefs as all having their own inherent dignity and value. She doesn’t try to disguise the fact that people can have beliefs that are just plain wrong. She also doesn’t disguise the fact that all people are sinners and have their own shortcomings. But she still sees people as valuable and important. People are made in the image of God. Sayers’ portrayals of Anglican vicars, businessmen, domestic servants, chimney sweeps and advertising men are insightful and delightful.

In addition to all of the things about the Sayers’ novels that I’ve already mentioned, Sayers is also a good writer and a good mystery writer at that.


Jilly said...

It's good to see someone else enjoying Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey. The books involving Harriet Vane are probably my favourites especially Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon - not forgetting of course the short stories in Striding Folly. I am not wholly convinced by Jill Paton Walsh's follow ups, even though she is an excellent writer. I do however enjoy her Imogen Quy books - The Wyndham case etc. happy reading

Empirical Feline said...

Thanks for this. I was just about to commit to reading "the Nine Tailors," but wanted some background first. Having been raised a Catholic and now a skeptic, I have always been drawn to writers (especially British writer of the 20s and 30s)who exploit Christian metaphor in a detective/thriller genre--Graham Greene is another favorite of mine.

Empirical Feline said...

Thanks for this. I was just about to commit to reading "the Nine Tailors," but wanted some background first. Having been raised a Catholic and now a skeptic, I have never the less always been drawn to writers (especially British writer of the 20s and 30s)who exploit Christian metaphor in a detective/thriller genre--Graham Greene is another favorite of mine.

Elizabeth said...

Amazing that people are still reading Dorothy Sayers - one of the best writers of the 20th century, in my not so humble opinion. I agree with all you said - and just want to add that she writes a rousing good story, whether novel or short!