Crime school was in session last Thursday night when Murder Among Friends (MAF) met to discuss this year’s Lion of the Genre: Dorothy L. Sayers and the very first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? We shared some background on the author and the Golden Age mystery writing period that she was such an integral part of, and how it established many of the mystery writing “conventions” – particularly in the traditional mystery genre.
This included such things as having a point in the story where the chief sleuth (here, Lord Peter) mulls over a list of events or things they have learned and say something to the effect of “By Jove! Now I have it!” while the poor reader is saying “Noooo – what do you mean you have it? How could you possibly have figured it out from that list?” We don’t see many mysteries using this today, but then we talked a bit about how puzzle-solving mysteries of the classic “whodunit” type are less in favor right now. The most popular trend is in more the “how-dunit” vein of fast-paced thrillers. Here the “how” is more focused on how will the criminal be caught, or how will the hero escape.
We talked about how the fact that this was written in a different age, also contributed to a slower paced, more detailed style of narration than many of today’s readers have patience for. We particularly got a kick out of the fact that in a later Wimsey novel he and his true love express their feelings for each other – in Latin! We talked about the fact that Sayers was an Oxford educated scholar, and both a literary and liturgical writer who was highly respected for her work in both areas. This, together with the circle of friends and writers she had known, would have made some of the more esoteric points she makes about Lord Peter and his friends perfectly believable, and even necessary to both his aristocratic position and the educational level he had available to him as a member of the upper class. As a younger son, he is free from the demands of conventional noble life and is able to indulge his passions for book collecting, music, travel – and crime-solving.
We talked at length about how his boredom was the main factor that led him to trying to solve crimes, and how given his rank, his intellect, and his history with successful crime solving, he was able to insert himself into the case of the body in the tub without a fuss being made by the police. The fact that he is best friends with Inspector Parker and has influential friends in high places doesn’t hurt him either. And the times he lived in were far different than those of today’s CSI-oriented practices – both here and in England. Note: We now he was involved in at least one famous case referred to as the case of Lord Attenbury’s emeralds. Jill Paton Walsh, who has continued the Lord Peter stories, has actually written a Lord Peter novel called The Attenbury Emeralds – which we have in the Lisle Library collection! Just click on the title to go to our catalog link for this book. We also talked about how influenced this first book in particular is, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Sayers is clearly trying to create a noble British counterpoint to Holmes. She mentions Holmes a number of times, has Peter quoting him and has references from previous cases of Holmes. The use of naming this previous case of Peter’s in this very first book, is one of Doyle’s own conventions for Sherlock – and is how a number of pastiches and novels have been created in the Sherlockian vein by picking up on some case Holmes or Watson refers to, but are never expounded on by Watson.
We also talked about how this book has some of the problems that first books often have for authors: too lengthy exposition, particularly in Freke’s letter, not enough about secondary characters, etc. Despite these flaws, we felt that Whose Body? gives a great introduction to Wimsey’s style, Bunter’s abilities, and establishes key connections for books further into the series, especially the next book, Clouds of Witness where we become intimately acquainted with Peter’s family, especially the older brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver – here seen in just a brief passage during Peter’s retreat to Denver. Both the Dowager Duchess, so much a part of Whose Body? and the present Duchess, Gerald’s wife, as well as Peter’s younger sister Mary comprise the main cast of Clouds of Witness.
Discussion then followed about the later books featuring Harriet Vane and how she can be seen as a variation on Sayers herself, and how Sayers had stated that Lord Peter was her ideal man. We talked about how her personal life had been quite tumultuous, and had included an illegitimate child that no one knew about until after her death. Her professional life on the other hand, saw great success in her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and her friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton. She was also instrumental in establishing the Detection Club with other professional mystery writers and the (tongue-in-cheek) “rules” for writing mysteries. These “rules” later rebounded on the head of Agatha Christie when she wrote a previous discussion book of ours, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sayers was one of Christie’s defenders & helped her to keep her membership in the Detection Club.
We also segued into the DVD Sayers fan favorite debate: Ian Carmichael as Wimsey or Edward Petherbridge? I mentioned that most fans seem to like Ian Carmichael best for really capturing the character of Wimsey, even though he was a bit too old to be playing the younger Wimsey he played in Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, The Nine Tailors, and Murder Must Advertise. Petherbridge, and his co-star Harriet Walter, in particular, were a better match to Sayers' descriptions of Wimsey and Harriet Vane. The two played Wimsey and Harriet in Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night. We have both actors sets of DVDs in the Lisle Library collection!
Before wrapping up, I mentioned that we are very fortunate to have nearby the Wade collection at Wheaton College which includes many papers by Dorothy L. Sayers, as well as objects and papers of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This includes the wardrobe that C.S. Lewis owned when writing The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
NOTE: We are looking into having a MAF Field Trip to go see this collection, and (hopefully) get some insights from a Sayers expert. There will be more posted here as I am able to get things worked out! Also, the other handouts we had will be appearing in the page on Sayers that will also be up on this blog soon.