Desert Isle Keeper
The Lord Peter Wimsey Series
On my desert island I will of course have many books from many genres. There is one detective series I simply must have and that is the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Lord Peter is, hands down, one of my favorite fictional characters ever and one whom his author took through a remarkable transformation.
Lord Peter Wimsey is the second son of the late Duke of Denver. He loves music and collecting rare books. Peter is extremely intelligent, an honors graduate of Balliol college. In appearance, Lord Peter is short and slender with blond hair, a long face and a big nose. He wears a monocle and cultivates an air of the not-to-bright idle man about town. At one point one of his lady friends refers to him as, “That chattering icicle in an eyeglass.” Peter’s brother Gerald is the present Duke. Gerald is a bluff and somewhat dull country squire who is married to Helen, a crashing snob. Peter has a sister Lady Mary, who in the course of the series marries Peter’s good friend Detective Charles Parker. There is also Peter’s mother, the delightful dowager Duchess of Denver, and Peter’s servant Bunter, a master of all trades. These characters are found in most of the Wimsey novels.
In the first novel, Whose Body?, Lord Peter solves the case of a battered body in a bathtub. While the mystery is interesting, Lord Peter is such a silly-ass here that if readers stop and goes no further, they will miss a wonderous transformation in a character.
In Clouds of Witness, Peter’s brother the Duke is accused of murder and Peter must solve the crime. There is a great trial scene in the House of Lords and Peter flying through rough weather with evidence to clear his brother. Peter has moments of silliness, but a sharp and complicated character begins to emerge.
Unnatural Death continues Peter’s growth in character. This book also introduces one of Sayer’s best characters, Miss Katherine Climpson, a middle-aged lady who works with Lord Peter in one of his projects – a temp agency/investigative organization. Miss Climpson seems a bit dotty at first, but is a shrewd judge of people. I wish Sayers had featured Miss Climpson in her own series.
In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Peter continues to change from simply a silly-ass dilatante who solves murders out of boredom to a vastly more interesting character. We find out about his experiences in World War I where he was gassed and suffered a nervous breakdown. The mystery itself revolves around the means of death and the time of death of an old general who is found dead in his chair at his club.
Strong Poison marks a big change in the character of Peter Wimsey. He goes to a trial where the popular detective novelist Harriet Vane is accused of poisoning her lover with arsenic. The evidence against her is seemingly overwhelming, but circumstantial. The jury cannot reach a verdict and Peter has one month to find evidence to clear Harriet. In the course of the investigation he falls in love with her, but she not wanting to be dependent on him, refuses his proposal.
Five Red Herrings has Peter by the seashore where he gets involved in a case with six suspects in the murder of an artist. Five of them are innocent and one is quite fiendish. This has a very complex plot.
Have His Carcase brings Peter and Harriet together on a case. Their relationship grows closer and the case itself is notable for being one of the first in which hemophilia plays a role in the plot. It also has a very difficult cipher message that Peter and Harriet must crack.
Murder Must Advertise has Peter working incognito in an advertising agency to solve a murder that is linked to the drug trade in London. There is much information on the advertising business, a business that Sayers knew well, as she had worked in an ad agency for a number of years.
The Nine Tailors is many reader’s favorite of the non-Harriet stories. It takes place in the Fen district of England and involves change-ringing, the art of ringing combinations of bells. The local color in the book is outstanding and one of the characters in the book, the Reverend Mr. Venables, is an affectionate portrait of Sayers’ own father, who was a minister.
Gaudy Night takes place at a gaudy – a college reunion. There is no murder in it, simply a series of poison-pen letters addressed to the scholars of the college where Harriet Vane graduated. Harriet and Peter solve the problem of the poison pen letters and become engaged at the end.
In Busman’s Honeymoon, Peter and Harriet buy a country home and go there on their honeymoon. Of course trouble follows them, and they find a dead body in the house. As Peter and Harriet work to solve the murder, we get an idea of what their future relationship will be like – one of deep love, mutual respect and need for each other.
There are several volumes of short stories about Lord Peter and Sayers started another novel about Peter and Harriet entitled Thrones, Dominations which was finished by Jill Paton Walsh. I did not care for it, and prefer to leave Peter and Harriet as they were at the end of Busman’s Honeymoon.
Some critics have accused Dorothy L. Sayers of falling in love with her character. Of course she did, and what is wrong with that? It is clear from the progression of Lord Peter’s character in the books that she did care for him and he became someone special to her. That care for her characters shows in the books and they remain in print today while other detective stories of that time period are forgotten.
The Lord Peter books are sometimes a bit difficult to read. Sayers was a very intelligent woman and liked to show off. The books are peppered with quotes from obscure poets and phrases in Latin and French. If ever a series cried out for annotation, this one does. But don’t let the obscurity of a few quotes stop you from reading this marvelous series of books. They are true classics of detective fiction from the Golden Age.