As my Whimsy takes me. - motto of the Wimsey family.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 - 1957) wrote 20 short stories1 and 11 novels (plus one further unfinished novel) featuring one of the finest detectives ever created. One of the particular joys of the books is the manner in which the characters are developed throughout the series. They also present a portrait of the English upper classes between the World Wars, bringing its atmosphere to life and preserving a snapshot of a bygone age. Sayers' keen sense of observation presents the reader with a rich level of detail which is much more involving than a straightforward history can achieve.
Some of the books can be a little difficult to read - Sayers was a very intelligent woman who liked to show off. Several of them are peppered with quotes from obscure poets and phrases in Latin and French. Don't let the occasional obscurity prevent you reading2 this wonderful series of books. They are definite classics of 'Golden Age' detective fiction.
The Main Characters
Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey is the younger brother of the 16th Duke of Denver. Independently wealthy, when we first meet him he lives in a bachelor flat at 110a Piccadilly, London, attended by his faithful manservant - the invaluable (and imperturbable) Bunter. His main interests are collecting rare books and manuscripts, music and criminology. He is an expert on matters of food (especially wine) and male fashion and loves to drive at speed in the latest of a succession of Daimler cars all named 'Mrs. Merdle' after a character in Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.
In appearance, he is short and slim with a long face, large nose and fair hair. Presenting the image of a 'Bertie Wooster' type of idle man-about-town, he is in fact extremely intelligent, with a first class honours degree (in Modern History) from Balliol College, Oxford3.
Bunter: Peter's invaluable manservant, whom he met when he served with him in the war. Bunter is a man of at least as many talents as Lord Peter, photography in particular being almost an obsession. He is also extremely useful for gaining information from the domestic servants of suspects.
Inspector Charles Parker: Peter's friend and ally at Scotland Yard. Hard-working and conventional, Parker is an excellent foil for Wimsey's brilliance.
Harriet Vane: An author of detective novels. A country doctor's daughter with an Oxford degree, she is an intelligent and independent young lady. Described as 'not pretty, but what you would call striking-looking'.
The Wimsey Family
- The Duke of Denver, Peter's elder brother Gerald, is 'handsome and stupid in a country-family sort of way', and disapproves of his brother's involvement in criminal cases. His wife, Helen, is a complete snob and a 'long-necked, long-backed woman, who disciplined her hair and her children'.
- Lady Mary Wimsey, Peter's younger sister, who is first shown as a 'bright young thing' struggling with a social conscience and Communist leanings.
- The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Peter's mother. A small, plump woman with a very lively mind, she is devoted to her younger son.
- Lord St. George, 'Jerry', Peter's nephew and heir to the duchy. A rather wild and headstrong young man.
- Paul Delagardie, Peter's uncle. Resident in France and a hardened old roué, he appears mostly in the form of letters and a biographical note on Peter attached to some of the novels.
There are also other recurring characters among whom perhaps the most notable are; Miss Katherine Climpson (an elderly spinster who runs a typing agency set up by Lord Peter - as a cover for investigating suspicious characters), Sir Impey Biggs (a brilliant QC, whose hobby is breeding budgerigars), Mr. Murbles (the Wimsey family solicitor), Freddy Arbuthnot (Peter's friend and a source of financial information) and Inspector Sugg (the obligatory stupid policeman - who fades away as the series develops).
The dead body of a complete stranger turns up in an architect's bathtub. By chance, Lord Peter hears of this and decides to assist. At the same time Parker is searching for a missing financier - are the two cases linked?The first Wimsey story published, this novel is also the weakest of the series but shows signs of the excellence to come.
Clouds of Witness
Following on from the events of the previous book Peter rushes back from holiday upon finding his brother, the Duke of Denver accused of murdering their sister's fiance. The interested parties all appear to have matters which they would prefer to remain hidden and it is up to Peter and his friend, Inspector Parker, to discover what actually took place on the fateful night.
Despite several rather melodramatic passages this book shows the beginnings of the development and real depth of character that makes this series stand out.
Whilst having dinner with Parker, Peter meets a young doctor who tells them of an elderly patient he cared for who mysteriously died while under his care. He raised suspicions of murder - but could not prove anything - which badly damaged his reputation. Peter suspects something and decides to investigate. He has Miss Climpson (see above) visit the town in question to find out about the woman, her nurse, and the murder of one of the housekeepers who had worked there at the time.
This novel continues to flesh out Peter's character and completes what might be considered to be the development stage of the series.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
The 'Unpleasantness' revolves around the means and time of death of 90-year-old General Fentiman who is found dead in his chair at his club. No one noticed for hours that he was dead and during those hours his wealthy sister also died, resulting in a legal battle between their heirs over which died first.
Lord Peter continues to develop from simply being a 'silly-ass dilettante' who solves murders out of boredom into a far more interesting character. We also discover something of his experiences in World War I where he was buried alive and suffered a nervous breakdown.
Lord Peter attends a murder trial where the accused is Harriet Vane, a writer of detective fiction, charged with murdering her former lover. If Lord Peter cannot prove she is innocent she will hang - what makes it more of a problem is that he has fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, all the clues seem to point to Harriet as the only one who could have given Philip Boyes the arsenic that killed him.
Strong Poison marks a big change in the character of Peter Wimsey and introduces Harriet Vane as the love interest in the series. An independent and intelligent young woman, she distrusts her feelings and refuses his proposal.
Five Red Herrings
The Five Red Herrings of the title are among the six suspects in the murder of an artist in the village of Kirkcudbright, Scotland. Whoever killed Campbell also painted a landscape in his style to confuse the time of death, so it had to be one of the six other artists in the village, and they all had reasons for murder. Now Lord Peter Wimsey has to figure out who done it and which are the five red herrings.
This book has a very complex plot and is particularly recommended to those who prefer to have to think about their whodunnits.
Have His Carcase
Recovering from her ordeal in Strong Poison, Harriet Vane takes off on a hiking trip along the seashore, where she discovers the body of a man with his throat recently cut. Lord Peter turns up to help her deal with press and police, and together they work to solve the crime.
This novel brings Peter and Harriet together on a case for the first time and we see their relationship grow closer. The case also features an ingenious cipher message that Peter and Harriet must crack.
Murder Must Advertise
Lord Peter takes up employment as a copywriter for an advertising agency under the pseudonym of 'Death Bredon' (his middle names), investigating the recent death of one of the employees. In the process he finds out what it is like to actually work for a living.
Most of the action takes place in an advertising agency, a setting with which Sayers was very familiar. Many considered this to be the best book of the series, although she herself is said to have considered it something of a failure.
The Nine Tailors
Stranded by accident in the Fen district of England4 Lord Peter not only joins the locals in ringing an historic peal of 'changes5' but also uses his knowledge of bell-ringing to solve a 20-year-old mystery involving the theft of an emerald necklace. The title refers to the custom of ringing a church bell nine times to signal the death of a man of the parish (six times for a woman).
The local colour in the book is outstanding and one of the characters, the Reverend Mr. Venables, is said to be an affectionate portrait of Sayers' own minister father.
Harriet Vane attends a reunion (Gaudy) at her (fictional) Oxford alma mater, Shrewsbury College. A series of poison pen letters threaten to escalate into something more serious, luckily Lord Peter arrives to help her uncover the culprit.
Against the background of the academic world of Oxford, quite brilliantly described by Sayers, Harriet faces up to her feelings and realises that she loves Peter - and finally accepts his proposal of marriage.
Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finally marry and arrange to spend their honeymoon at Talboys, an Elizabethan farmhouse she had loved as a child. When the previous owner is found dead in the cellar, the newly-weds work together to solve the mystery of his murder.
As Peter and Harriet investigate the murder, we also get to watch the development of their relationship into a true partnership.
Returning from finishing their honeymoon on the continent, Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey are settling into their new home in London. A beautiful former fashion model married to a wealthy man who worships her is murdered, and the Wimseys are back in harness.
Thrones, Dominations was begun by Sayers in 1936 but abandoned. It was completed by Jill Paton Walsh and published in 1998. The title is a quote from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Sayers's notes apparently comprise most of the first six chapters but do not include the names of the murderer or even the victim.
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