Posts Tagged ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’

oxford wall blue sky

The old familiar way into Oxford, then. Down Headington Hill, which offers no prospect of the towery city; along a nondescript street to the roundabout always called “The Plains,” with no sight yet of anything remarkable; and then a turn onto the bridge, on the far side of which rises Magdalen College tower – Gothic at its most austere and beautiful, and shedding like falling petals into the memories of anyone who ever heard them, the voices of the choirboys from aloft, singing an annual welcome to the first day of spring.

—The Late Scholar, Jill Paton Walsh

I read The Late Scholar on my overnight flight to London a few weeks ago – particularly apt, since its plot features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (now Lady Wimsey) returning to Oxford (to solve a mystery, of course). I first fell in love with Peter and Harriet during my first long-ago spring in Oxford, when I read Gaudy Night and thrilled to every description of the city’s towers, golden stones and winding streets.

all souls towers oxford england

Like Peter, whose journey is described above (though he came by car), I came into Oxford the old, familiar way: on a bus from Heathrow Airport, through the countryside, half dozing for the first hour and then sitting up, alert, as we approached Oxford via the busy ring road.

all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s true that Headington Hill offers no view of the spires I love, but Headington’s high street has its own charms, and I relished every familiar sight: charity shops, alluring side roads, the Starbucks where I used to go see Lizzie at work and indulge in peppermint hot cocoa.

oxford view g&d's ice cream

We swept down the steep hill, past Oxford Brookes’ gleaming modern campus, the green bolt of South Park unrolling down the hill to our left, then swung around The Plain and rumbled over Magdalen Bridge.

magdalen bridge oxford england

I am never quite back in Oxford until I’ve caught a glimpse of Magdalen’s tower, tall and proud, its carved battlements tipped with gold in the morning sunshine. Then it was down the High Street, past Christ Church with its iconic Tom Tower, through a few back streets to the bus station, and onto the familiar cobblestones of Gloucester Green.

feet cobblestones

And then home, the old way – down St Giles and the Woodstock Road, past buildings and shops whose names all called out, dear and familiar to me.

st giles church oxford england

The pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to drink and argue about writing and theology. The Oxfam bookshop, though it was too early to stop and browse. The wishbone-shaped piece of land at the divergence of the Woodstock and Banbury Roads, where sits St Giles’ Church and its peaceful graveyard.

st giles church oxford england

The grand Roman Catholic Oratory. The unassuming Radcliffe Infirmary. A few familiar pubs, and several colleges bounded by their stone walls, over which leaned graceful trees, their leaves colored with the first hints of autumn.

katie leaves oxford

Peter Wimsey notes, later in the chapter quoted above, that “Oxford people return to base.” For Peter (as all Wimsey fans know), this means visiting Balliol, where he earned his degree.

balliol college oxford uk

For me, it means a pair of tall Victorian houses on a quiet street in North Oxford, where I spent a blissful semester as an undergraduate and many happy days as a postgrad student. They have sheltered hundreds of American students from my alma mater, and the sight of them always means one thing, deep down in my bones: I am home.

house 9 oxford uk

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

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“You seem not to appreciate the importance of your special form,” he said. “Detective stories contain a dream of justice. They project a vision of a world in which wrongs are righted, and villains are betrayed by clues that they did not know they were leaving. A world in which murderers are caught and hanged, and innocent victims are avenged, and future murder is deterred.”

“But it is just a vision, Peter. The world we live in is not like that.”

“It sometimes is,” he said. “Besides, hasn’t it occurred to you that to be beneficent, a vision does not have to be true?”

“What benefits could be conferred by falsehood?” she asked.

“Not falsehood, Harriet; idealism. Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”

Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh

dorothy sayers lord peter wimsey mysteries books

As Lord Peter notes above, I do read mystery novels for fun and diversion (though I rarely figure out the solution before the detective does). But this articulation of the deeper order and meaning inherent in the genre made me want to stand up and shout “Yes!”. Detective stories portray the world as I often wish it were: chaotic at times, but with the possibility for justice and truth.

When real life feels seemingly random, a collection of subplots and loose threads (and occasional tragic events) that don’t always hang together, it’s comforting to reach for a mystery novel (or flip on an episode of Castle). I’m consoled and heartened by the knowledge that Sherlock Holmes, Maisie Dobbs, Miss Marple, Chet and Bernie, and even 11-year-old Flavia de Luce can trace the clues, find the killer, and wrap everything up by the last page. Although more cases will always crop up, every solution brings us a bit closer to the ideal of a just and peaceful world.

Do you agree with this vision of detective fiction? (And are you acquainted with Lord Peter and Harriet? As you may know, I adore them both.)

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dorothy sayers lord peter wimsey mysteries books

As my periodic reading roundups show, I am on a serious Dorothy Sayers kick this fall.

I blame my friend Hannah.

Back in August, Hannah suggested Sayers’ Gaudy Night for our occasional book club’s September meeting. I had read and loved Gaudy Night during my first stint in Oxford in 2004 (it’s set there), so I happily agreed.

I was a bit worried I wouldn’t love the book as much the second time around, but Sayers’ intricately plotted mystery, multiple literary allusions, witty asides, and musings on the love story of two complex people were even more appealing than before. I sighed happily when detective fiction writer Harriet Vane and gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey got their happy ending – and this time, I had a much deeper appreciation of what it took to make their relationship work. (I am perhaps a little wiser than I was as a college sophomore.)

After Gaudy Night, I reread Busman’s Honeymoon, the story of Harriet and Peter’s honeymoon, which (of course) involves a murder mystery, and also contains several moving scenes of two independent people trying to adjust to marriage. Then I reread Strong Poison, in which we meet Harriet as she is on trial for poisoning her lover (she didn’t do it). Lord Peter helps get Harriet acquitted and promptly falls in love with her.

I’ve always loved Harriet: she is whip-smart, witty, independent and kind. She longs for someone to love, but she wants true love and a partnership of equals – a tall order both in 1930s England and today. I found her to be much as I remembered her, but I appreciated Lord Peter and his wry sense of humor much more this time around. So instead of completing my reread of the Harriet oeuvre right away (sadly, she appears in only four Sayers novels), I went back to the beginning of Lord Peter’s adventures, picking up Whose Body?.

Lord Peter is a World War I veteran, the second son of a duke, which means he has money, but no real responsibilities. He is tall, blond and languid, with swept-back hair, impeccably tailored clothes, and a monocle. He’s also thoughtful, curious, droll, honorable, and adept at hiding his keen intelligence under a buffoonish exterior. He and his manservant, Bunter, fought in World War I together, which bonded them for life. (Peter occasionally has flashbacks of his most traumatic war experiences.)

Peter’s hobby – indeed his vocation – is solving mysteries, often in tandem with Scotland Yard, and Sayers invents all kinds of entertaining cases for him to investigate.

I’ve worked my way through most of the series this fall, reading Lord Peter’s solo adventures for the first time, and finally rereading Have His Carcase (the other mystery featuring Harriet) when I came to it in the series’ sequence. I’ve got The Nine Tailors waiting on my bedside table, and I’ll probably pick up Sayers’ short stories featuring Lord Peter (there are lots).

I’m also curious about the continuation of Harriet and Peter’s story, picked up by Jill Paton Walsh at the request of Sayers’ estate. I’m usually skeptical of fanfiction-esque projects like that, but I love Harriet and Peter and I wish Sayers had written more books featuring them together.

I love Sayers’ mysteries because I love a good story, and the ingredients are all here. Engaging characters – Lord Peter, Bunter, Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, Peter’s elderly undercover assistant Miss Climpson, his scatterbrained mother, and especially Harriet, who is still my favorite. Lots of action (though the endless train timetables in The Five Red Herrings were not my favorite plot device). Fascinating settings – Sayers sends her hero all over the UK, from a Scottish village to a country estate to a London advertising agency to my beloved Oxford.  And most of the stories don’t wrap up right after the murderer is found, but wind down more slowly to satisfying resolutions.

Along the way, in every book, we get dozens of literary quotes and quips, lots of Lord Peter’s witty asides, colorful descriptions of local people, and a vivid portrait of life in Britain between the wars. So much fun.

Have you read any of Sayers’ novels featuring Lord Peter, and/or Harriet? (Or Jill Paton Walsh’s novels?) What did you think?

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