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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