Iain's Leisure Reading

Dorothy Sayers - The Lord Peter Wimsey books

I recently started reading Agatha Christie and was struck by how often her name was bracketed with that of Dorothy L Sayers - they were the two pillars of a Literary Movement known as the Golden Age of Detective fiction. This refers to crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. I am not sure that I agree that the 1920s and 1930s were a Golden Age, but I had heard of Dorothy Sayers (and her famous creation Lord Peter Wimsey), and decided to investigate further.

Dorothy Sayers, an only child, was born in Oxford in 1893. At six, her father, a headmaster and clergyman started to teach her Latin, and aged 13, she went to Godolphin boarding school in Salisbury. Three years later she won a scholarship to Sommerville College, Oxford, where she later gained first class honours in 1915. Women were not awarded degrees in those days, but she was amongst the first to finally be allowed to graduate as MA in 1920. She was almost a polymath, and led a full and eventful life. She was a published poet, a playwright, a teacher, including working in France, and she worked very successfully writing advertising copy. There she coined the phrase "it pays to advertise", and was responsible for the famous Guinness Toucan advert (Guinness is good for you, How grand to be a Toucan, Think what Toucan do). She tried her hand at crime fiction, and in eleven novels featured Lord Peter Whimsey whom she described as a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. Her novels were not just crime fiction stories - she also explored and commented on the social problems of her day. These included the difficulties of WW1 veterans, the ethics of advertising, womens' education and rights, and the evils of Nazi doctrine. She had deep Christian and academic interests, and translated Dante's Divine Comedy from Italian, providing copious and learned notes. She wrote religious books on Creation and Incarnation, and did so well in presenting orthodox Aglican doctrine that the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, which she declined, but she later accepted an honorory doctorate from Durham.

In 1920 she had an unhappy affair with a Russian emigre, and in 1922 entered another with a bounder Bill White, who moved into her London apartment in St James Street. Sayers became pregnant, and later at the age of 30, had an illegimate and secret son John Anthony (later Fleming) who was given to the care of her aunt and cousin Amy and Ivy Shrimpton. He was later sent to a good school, and after Sayers met and married her husband "Mac" Flemming, John Anthony was legally adopted by Mac and Dorothy - but Sayers never let on that she was John's birth mother. Mac probably knew, but never spoke of it. Anthony later went on to win a scholorship for Oxford, and entered Baliol College. Sayers chose Baliol as the Alma Mater of her character Lord Peter Whimsey. Sayers and Mac lived in Great James street, both working - Mac as an author and journalist, and Sayers in advertising and also an author. Fleming's health was poor - WW1 damage - and he died at their cottage in Witham in Essex in 1950. Sayers later died there in 1957 - there is a statue in the street outside where she lived. After her death it was revealed that John Anthony was her son, and sole beneficiary. John later died in 1984 in America.

Lord Peter Whimsey is the product of Eton and Baliol and the archtype for the British gentleman detective, who pretends to be a "dont you know" Bertie Wooster scatterbrain, and solves crimes for his own amusement with help from his butler Melvyn Bunter, DI Charles Parker his Scotland Yard chum, and later brother in law, and also later by Harriet Vane - who would become his wife. Wimsey is an expert on food and wine, male fashion and classical music. He is a gifted pianist, and he loves fast cars. He served in WW1, (where he met Bunter) and rose to the rank of major, also working in Intelligence. He was wounded and suffered post traumatic stress disorder. On the surface he comes across as a most annoying light weight character, but this is a deliberate facade behind which hides a complex but good man.

Unnatural Death     (1927)

I read this book in Jan, 2019.

This is book three in Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series, but it's the first in the series that I have read. I spotted a Dorothy Sayers book in "The Works" bookshop, knew that Dorothy Sayers was a highly regarded contemporary of Agatha Christie, and thought "why not, let's give the series a try." The book I bought had an introduction by the writer Minette Walters, who went to the same school as Dorothy - Godolphin - (but much later of course). There were also a couple of extra chapters at the end giving more of Peter Wimsey's background.

The book was published in 1927, and it was interesting to read of life of that period. Thus one of the characters in the book was delighted that she could have as many baths as she wanted in her new digs - you "just put tuppence in the geyser." Sayers would today be described as something of a feminist. So many young men have died in the great war, and there are lots of unmarried able young ladies, but they are expected to play second fiddle to men, and often end up in dull, unrewarding, poorly paid jobs. Peter Wimsey is a lord, and has lots of money, but he makes a point of employing Miss Climpson as his enquiry agent. She does the running around, and Wimsey does the thinking. Also Wimsey has a Scotland Yard DI at his beck and call - DI Parker. Parker also has become something of a close friend of Wimsey. Finally we also meet Bunter - Wimsey's butler / man servant. Bunter was Wimsey's sergeant in the army - Wimsey rose to the rank of Major. So the team seems to be Wimsey, Parker, and Miss Climpson.

I found the book heavy going in places, partly caused by the Wimsey character. It seems he has adopted a foppish, rambling, "silly ass" persona, apparently to put people at their ease, and get people to underestimate him, in short to put them off their guard. But I found his manner of speech and circumlocution very tiring. I wished he would just say what he meant, and get to the point. He is the English amateur detective who solves crimes as a hobby, but he realises it's not the done thing to catch criminals and murders and get them sent to the gallows for sport.

The story itself was OK, albeit told in a very rambling style. Wimsey is dining with a friend, discussing a case in the newspapers, and wondering why the doctors in the case did not intevene more. A doctor (Dr Carr) at the neighbouring table joins the conversation and says he did do just that, but ended up losing all his patients, and his private practice. This is course is before the days of the NHS. Dr Carr thought the sudden death of one of his patients, an old lady who admittedly did have heart problems and was expected to die eventually - he thought this death suspicious, and insisted on autopsies. Nothing susicious was found, and his other patients, not liking the idea of having their bodies messed around with after their death, voted with their feet and went elsewhere for their medical needs. Wimsey was intrigued with the story. He had always been fascinated with the possibility of a perfect murder, one so perfect that no one suspected it was a murder, and he resolved to look into the case. Miss Climpson was despatched, and Parker, and a couple of Chief Constables were later drawn into the case. The old lady was Miss Agatha Dawson, and she had lived with her niece Mary Whittaker. Mary was a trained nurse. Mary was due to inherit Miss Dawson's estate - so she stood to gain, but she was going to get the estate anyway. Why on earth should she kill her aunt - what motive could there be ? Also she had an alibi. Mary had a close (suggestions of very close) friendship with Miss Findlater who gave her an alibi. So was there a crime, how was it done, and was there a motive ?

Wimsey sticks to his investigation although everyone says he is wasting his time, and so the story unfolds. There are other deaths, and strange happenings. The method of death was indeed undetectable, and there was a motive - but to explain the motive Sayers had to investigate some obscure legal issues which possibly might arise on the passing of a new inheritance law the following year. Eventually we do get to the point, and there is a climax when Miss Climpson seems to be the next victim.

All in all, I thought the story ended up OK really, and I'll read some more in the series to see what I think. It sometimes takes me a while to warm to a series.

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