Tag: Dorothy L. Sayers

Review – Unnatural Death

Posted October 10, 2019 by Nikki in Uncategorized / 2 Comments

Cover of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. SayersUnnatural Death, Dorothy L. Sayers

I had a frazzling week or so there, and so naturally I turned to Dorothy L. Sayers for comfort. (You’ve all heard the story about when my mother used a Lord Peter audiobook to calm me down when I came out of anaesthesia after an operation, by this point, I’m sure.) Unnatural Death is a very clever story which I’ve never really considered a favourite, even though it contains so many things I love: Miss Climpson and the cleverness of her characterisation; quite a lot of banter and partnership between Peter and Parker; and yes, that ingenious murder method that puzzles Peter until almost the end of the book.

It begins in a restaurant: Peter and Parker are debating whether doctors report things they suspect to be murder, or whether any number of murders might be going unsolved and almost unsuspected. Peter says that doctors risk their livelihoods by making accusations, and someone overhears and breaks into their conversation to say it’s happened to him. Naturally Peter’s fascinated, and decides to look into it — and finds that by acting, he actually causes the killer to take further actions, intending to hide their tracks.

The murder method used is indetectable, even on autopsy, and the motive is completely unclear as well: the obvious suspect does not appear to benefit at all by the death of her elderly aunt. Nonetheless, Peter’s sure this is the perfect murder — a well-executed murder which almost defies detection — and he’s completely fascinated. It’s a bit ghoulish, honestly, and a little more examination of the mayhem he’s caused might be warranted on Peter’s part, but it makes for a fascinating story all the same. The motive and means are both ingenious, and we get some delightful bits of dialogue and character sketches along the way.

In short, though it doesn’t have a big hold on me as a sentimental favourite, nonetheless is a solid and clever read.

Rating: 4/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted October 9, 2019 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.

Cover of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. SayersWhat are you currently reading?

It’s been a long week and I haven’t been sleeping enough, so I’ve turned to a solid and beloved reread: Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s not my favourite of the series, but on reflection I’m not sure why I’ve always downplayed this one: Miss Climpson is a delight, and there’s so much good Peter-Parker bantering. And a good Bunter scene, though not enough of him on the whole.

Cover of The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia WaiteWhat have you recently finished reading?

I just finished The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, which was overall enjoyable but frustrated me in the home stretch with a stupid miscommunication thing, my least favourite trope in the whole wide world.

Cover of Grave Importance by Vivian ShawWhat will you be reading next?

I really want to finish rereading Dreadful Company and get to Grave Importance (Vivian Shaw). My wife’s been reading it and giggling away, and I’m feeling left out! Also, you know, I’ve been looking forward to this so much.

Luckily, we have an internet connection at home again (hi Zen Internet! bye Virgin Media!) and I don’t have to get up at an hour my body and brain don’t work at anymore, so that should be good for my reading after a rather slow week.

What are you currently reading?

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Review – The Documents in the Case

Posted September 26, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. SayersThe Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers

Somehow, I’d never read this one! Well, I have now. This showcases all Sayers’ usual eloquence and flair, and also her tendency to become enamoured of a set-piece that encapsulates a character and carry it on for pages at a time. Jack Munting’s letters to his fiancée are sweet, but they could probably been edited down a smidgeon, and some of the key scenes are likewise rather over-elaborated.

It’s a fascinating format, particularly when it sticks to the letters — it’s a little disappointing when it switches to a long statement, narrative-style, as if anybody ever actually remembers dialogue in such detail. It feels like she got tired of the format and had to round it off with a good long section of narrative just to make life easier. Still, I do love the way she teases out the conclusion, and the fact that it is based on an understanding of chemistry and right/left-handed molecules. Brilliant.

I do have questions about some of the characters: mostly lots to side-eye when it comes to Agatha Milsom, whose institutionalisation is never shown to us directly. It’s hard to judge if she’s actually mentally ill to a great degree, or (more likely) mostly just inconvenient to everyone. Sayers is rather harsh on her — as is Libby Purves, who wrote an introduction to this edition — but it seems to me that she is commenting on something real in the relationship between Mr and Mrs Harrison that other people don’t see. It isn’t the whole story, but the whole idea of her developing a monomania is so very Golden Age and so very irritating as an explanation.

In any case, it’s entertaining and clever, and there are some great character studies. Worth a read, even though it’s not an absolute resounding success on all fronts — it’s pretty darn entertaining despite that.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Clouds of Witness

Posted April 16, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. SayersClouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers

Listening to the radioplay and watching the TV adaptation of Clouds of Witness with Lisa made me really appreciate the actual book all over again. Every detail that she quibbled in the radioplay or TV series had an answer in the book; Sayers really knew what she was about. (Which is not to say that she never dropped a brick, but she made choices in her books for good reasons, and adaptors of her work should pay attention to her intentions there. (I’m looking at you, whoever adapted The Nine Tailors for TV — never mind that you’re blatantly disregarding history by having the Spanish flu occur in the 30s.)

Anyway, the book itself: in this second book of the series, Lord Peter finds his own brother accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, and has to rush back to England from Paris to help investigate what happened. The book isn’t short of physical peril for Peter: he nearly drowns in a bog, is shot by his sister’s other fiancé, attacked by a farmer, and flies from the US to the UK in a two-person aircraft to hurry back with evidence for Gerald’s trial. He gets to be a hero here for Gerald’s sake, and readers see more of his depth of feeling, sense of responsibility and duty, and of course his wit and brains.

People often think little of mystery books, and consequently of Dorothy L. Sayers, and it’s true there aren’t many mystery novels whose solution turns on the plot of an 18th Century French novel. Still, Sayers ensured there is at least one (and several other books with equally erudite references and plots).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Whose Body

Posted April 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Whose Body by Dorothy L. SayersWhose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers

We were watching the Petherbridge TV adaptations again, Brexit is terrible, and it was that kind of day. Of course I gave into the temptation — threw myself into it, more like, from Peter’s first “oh damn” to the denouement. When I review a book over and over again like this, I start to think about new ways to approach the review: it’s no good me telling you every time that this book is the first book in Sayers’ favourite series, in which Peter investigates the mysterious discovery of the body of a vagrant, shaved and cleaned up to look like a wealthy man, found in an architect’s bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. You’ve heard that from me before.

So what really caught my attention this time was the fact that even here, with Peter being a new series detective, when a lot of other Golden Age novels settled for dealing with the puzzle and leaving the detective to enigmatically take care of themselves around the edges of the mystery, Sayers is doing interesting things. She discusses Peter’s character at length — the shell shock is a prominent feature, yes, but also she deals with the fact that he’s an aristocrat, and thus there’s something very public school about how he approaches crime. The scene between Peter and Charles during which they discuss the rights and wrongs of pursuing criminals is great.

What also struck me a lot this time is how casually anti-Semitic it can sound. There’s one line about Sir Reuben having “the shekels” to stop a deal that just… modern Twitter shudders at the phrasing. Sayers thought she was actually quite positive toward the Jewish characters, but… gah.

It remains entertaining, and I was glad to focus on the scenes that give Peter a little more depth — but I’m also excited to get to Clouds of Witness and onwards.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Busman’s Honeymoon

Posted February 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. SayersBusman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

Busman’s Honeymoon isn’t the most substantial story, though it does have insights into married life and the kind of compromise necessary to couples. Harriet and Peter talk out the problems they encounter, and it’s a delight. In this book they finally get married — mostly covered in excerpts from letters and diaries, including some delightful glimpses into Peter’s mother’s life and way of thinking — and go off to spend their honeymoon in their new house, a place Harriet knew as a child. When they arrive, the owner is unexpectedly absent, and things are all at sixes and sevens… and of course, it turns out that the owner is actually dead.

Naturally, Harriet and Peter are drawn into the investigation, finding that it quickly disturbs their married bliss… and that they can find a way through it by communicating, being patient with one another, compromising (although never in a way that compromises their values). Anyone who knows my usual rants about the issues with romance novels and indeed with people in general will see how that delights me!

And as always, it’s cleverly and often wittily written, full of allusions and references. Sayers isn’t afraid of making you work at it, sometimes, and that’s also fun.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Gaudy Night

Posted February 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night looks to be the chunkiest of Sayers’ novels on my bookshelf: in effect, it’s a book-length musing on women and education, on equality in a relationship, and in doing the thing that you’re best suited to do — and making the sacrifices that may entail. Although there’s another book after this, it’s really the culmination of the series in some ways, resolving the romance between Peter and Harriet, and finally bringing the two of them into balance.

The plot itself takes Harriet to Oxford, a place she’s avoided since before she was tried for the murder of her lover. She didn’t think she could go back, after both taking a lover and being tried for his murder (even if she was acquitted), but she quickly finds there’s still a place for her there, and a life that has its charms of quiet contemplation and good hard work. She’s asked to stay there to help them track down something rather odd going on in their midst, a cross between a poison pen and a poltergeist, bent on causing disturbances that will reflect badly on the good name of the college — something that could be a pretty harsh blow to women’s education. In the meantime, she gets embroiled in various rivalries and misunderstandings, meets Peter’s nephew, and generally gets herself into trouble.

Really, the mystery isn’t as important to this book as Harriet’s struggle to forgive herself, and to begin to trust again after what happened to her. Although it’s been some time since the trial, she hasn’t really been confronting the demons and letting the wounds heal, and this book makes her do so. It also makes her really look at Peter, and discover how she actually feels about him.

It’s a book that dramatises badly: the BBC television adaptation is by far my least favourite of the three with Edward Petherbridge, despite the manifest delights of both him and Harriet Walter’s performance. The BBC radioplay is actually narrated by Harriet, and sticks much closer to the book, and so is more successful as a cohesive listening experience, though perhaps less so as a dramatisation. It’s a pretty insular book, and I think you may have to love Harriet, Peter, Oxford, or all of the above, to really appreciate it.

I really do. The thing that excites me most about Harriet and Peter as a couple is the fact that from their first meeting, everything hinges on them becoming equals and seeing each other as such — this isn’t a relationship where either of them subordinates their own wishes. Both are fully formed people, and Peter wants it that way — and Harriet doesn’t know or believe that he does, instead believing that any relationship will involve the subjugation of one to the other. Her realisation is beautiful, and Peter’s patience with bringing her there likewise.  I think that aspect of the books has aged well, even if the concern about educating women to a high level seems much less relevant.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Nine Tailors

Posted January 27, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. SayersThe Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

In The Nine Tailors, Peter and Bunter find themselves stranded in the Fen country due to their car being driven into a ditch. Taking shelter for New Year’s Eve in a small vicarage, Peter gets pressed into joining the vicar and his bellringers in ringing in the New Year, literally, with a complex and record-breaking peal. The reader might be slightly confused by this beginning, which features no crime, but after a while things become clear: the vicar writes to Peter later, asking for his help. A body has been found in the grave of a woman who died that New Year’s Day, and nobody knows who he is, who killed him, or even exactly how he died.

This was one of my favourite of the Peter Wimsey books from the start of my acquaintance with them, when I was rather less under the spell of Peter, and more inclined to be sceptical — I think I might’ve given Whose Body? two stars, so thank goodness I didn’t have a blog then: my mother would’ve had a fit. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this book is a favourite, though. Part of it is a sense of place — the desolate power of the Fenlands, the beauty of the church, the brooding menace of the bells… Part of it is that refrain from the book: “Nine tailors make a man.” For me, anyway, there’s a kind of magic in that phrase, in the idea of the bell slowly tolling to announce a death. And there’s also a good deal to love in the care Sayers took in using the bellringing for so much, weaving it into the plot inextricably, and making all the infodumps about change ringing useful to the rest of the story. There’s a powerful melancholy in the whole book.

(I’m sure for some people that’s also a reason to dislike the book; it’s a fairly measured and slow-paced story.)

For me, there’s also significant pleasure in the ironies of the story, and to elaborate would be to spoil the story. It’s a rather literary effort, compared to the snappier books from earlier in the series: for me, that’s a positive thing, though I like the earlier books as well. Could use more active involvement of Parker, though…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Murder Must Advertise

Posted January 16, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. SayersMurder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers

After rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey books at a fairly leisurely pace for a while, I more or less sat down and devoured the ones I had left, in December. Murder Must Advertise has long been a favourite for the fun of seeing both somewhat of how an advertising agency works, and how Dorothy Sayers herself worked in such an environment. (One feels one’s glimpsed her particularly in the figure of Miss Meteyard, I think — though Sayers herself was writing copy, more in Wimsey’s job than Miss Meteyard’s.) The book features Peter’s one real sustained undercover op: he embeds himself into an advertising agency under the name of Bredon, sniffing out a murder and a dope gang, all at once.

It’s also one of those books with a sincere sense of danger, and a bittersweet ending in which Peter allows a man the dignity of choosing the manner of his own death rather than immediately telling the police what he’s worked out. That tendency is one of the things that irritates me about Peter as a sleuth; his code of honour means he feels he has to allow people an out, even if that out is an honourable suicide. Of course we know that it never does go wrong, for Peter, but it could and it’s a flaw in him for me that he’s always so tempted to put the decision in a murderer’s hands. In this case, he suggests a method of suicide to someone that means their family won’t be overshadowed by the trial — but leaves him no chance of a fair trial. Peter is judge and jury, and the murderer themselves becomes their own executioner. It might not feel like cricket to turn people in to the police, but darn it, the legal system is there for a reason. Peter’s meant to be too decent to back someone against a wall and make them think all is lost, but still. Real people aren’t always right, or always decent.

All the same, for the most part it’s a bit of a romp, with Peter coming up with advertising slogans, and leading a double life to provide himself with alibis (of sorts). Harriet’s not really mentioned, and Bunter and even Parker are often in the background, with the setting and characters of the advertising agency taking centre stage. It makes a nice change.

I was surprised to read that this was something of a filler book, while Sayers was actually working on The Nine Tailors to get all the details right, but it makes sense in a way. It doesn’t advance Peter’s character arc much, or really do anything profound — apart from the last act of bravery on the part of a particular character.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Five Red Herrings

Posted February 20, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. SayersFive Red Herrings, Dorothy L. Sayers

Five Red Herrings does a couple of things that really annoy me, like having a long section of people positing obviously wrong ways the crime unfolded, and the whole “the reader will of course know what the missing object was” bit — no, I don’t! I’m not a painter, I don’t have that education, and I don’t know how common it would’ve been in Sayers’ time, but knowing that fact has not lasted.

In any case, reading it this time, I did enjoy Five Red Herrings more than I did last time, perhaps. The introduction in the new edition drew my attention to the fantastic sense of place and character, and to appreciate again the way that Peter is embedded in the mystery, caring about the people involved. Plot-wise, it’s very clever again, literally written according to train timetables and precise distances between places. It might not be my favourite, but I can appreciate all the work that went into it. Sayers may not have thought her detective novels terribly literary or worthwhile, but hindsight says they are.

Rating: 4/5

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