Monday, December 21, 2015

My Year in Books: For Peter's Sake

[This year, I was curious about what I was reading, so when I finished a book I put it on an ever-growing pile by my desk. Since I just talked about one set of mysteries, I thought it best to move to a collection of mystery short stories featuring the same character.]

Lord Peter by Dorothy Sayers, Harper & Row, published as a collection in 1972

I like Dorothy Sayer's mysteries involving Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey - British scion, amateur detective and general good-natured toff. Sort of Bertie Wooster but with more brains (Wodehouse was both inspiration and competitor to Sayers). I think Murder Must Advertise was the best of the lot, though the Lovely Bride would give the nod to Gaudy Night.

Such opinions are not universal. Raymond Chandler, whose work I also like, referred to Gaudy Night as "sycophantic drivel" and spoils the solution of one of her mysteries in "The Simple Art of Murder", declaiming that "A murderer who needs that must help from Providence must be in the wrong business". (Sayers never commented on Chandler's work, but wrote numerous reviews of mysteries in which she found American slang and American cliches extremely wearing).

Lord Peter is a collection of Wimsey short stories and provides ammunition for both sides of the argument. Sayers is a literate author who is as concerned with the manners of British society as she is with the gizmo that makes the story a mystery. As opposed to Mr. Stout and Mr. Gibson, there is a marked tendency to eschew the same familiar patterns and style that makes their works familiar to the reader. The end result is interesting, if uneven. In comparison to Wodehouse, who infamously wrote the same story for his entire life, Sayers backs up all the way and makes a running start at going in a presenting the tales in a new fashion.

Wimsey himself first showed up in Whose Body? (1923), though for the life of me I can't get exact data on where the short stories first appeared (this book is of no use in the matter: the front half  was collected in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), and the last tale, "Tallboys" is from 1942 as far as I can tell, but for the rest there is a thick London fog as to where and when they first showed up in print).  The span of these stories are the length of Sayers' career with Wimsey, then, and would have benefited from some sort of vintage mark to inform us when they first showed up in print.

The results of these attempts are uneven. There are few where the detective is disguised from the viewer initially, which works in a magazine but less effectively in a book named after said detective. There is one story in which there are no less than three Peter Wimseys (Wimsi?) in play, others where the detective arrives on the scene late, and a good handful where Lord Wimsey presents himself politely in the first paragraph. One that sticks in my mind centers involves a spirited chase up the Great North Road. It is interesting writing, but the mystery in that one is a case of the wrong criminal grabbing the wrong bag at the wrong time. It is a good story, but is it a good mystery?

In fact the mysteries are all over the board. There are archaic and strange wills from dotty ancestors within, including one presented as a crossword puzzle (provided, with clues) and another sketched on internal organs. There is one involving a sculptor suitable for a Lovecraft adventure, Many the hinge on some arcane fact, like how telephone exchanges worked in the 1930s British countryside or the effects of a thyroid condition or the use of a proper French pronoun. And there is a particularly winceable story involving dopplegangers and mirror images. One of the better ones deposits Wimsey in a typical English hamlet with complete with a haunted coachman.

That last one is one of the longer ones, and I think that Sayers flourishes more in the longer form of mystery than the shorter. The key part of the gizmo at the heart of the mystery tends to stick out, like a bone from a riverbank, inviting further inspection. But the writing is rich, and closer to a traditional comedy of manners than the more hardboiled Stout material. Sayers does not have the knack that Agatha Christie did in the short form, but when she wanders away from the mechanics of the mystery itself, she thrives.

More later,