The Wimsey Family, C.S. Scott-Giles, Dorothy L. Sayers
This is quality piffle, right here. It’s a short volume, and perhaps better in concept than actually in execution, at least as something to read straight through. It assembles a bunch of stories that Sayers and her correspondents came up with, explaining Peter’s family and where exactly he came from. It untangles some inconsistencies, and basically rationalises everything.
A nice thing for a collector of Sayers’ work to have, and for a major fan of Lord Peter, but perhaps not the most entertaining just to sit and read.
Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers
What do I even have to say about these books anymore? This is the second Wimsey book, and it ups the emotional involvement somewhat by bringing in Peter’s family, and therefore higher stakes. I love all the stupid, unreliable, ridiculous characters, and the clever ones too, since they’re often one and the same character. I love the fact that if you pay attention, there are clues throughout — if you know your literature. (I refer to the references to Manon Lescaut.)
Yes, it’s Golden Age detective fiction, with everything that implies. At times, things don’t seem to be moving along much further, things get confused and convoluted, and you just long for people to do some straight talking. It’s Peter and Bunter that carry it, along with some help from the Dowager Duchess — I read these books originally because they’re classics, but I came back again (and again, and again) for the characters and the cleverness of Sayers’ writing.
Whose Body?, Dorothy L. Sayers
A beloved reread, as you might expect, this time occasioned by having watched the Edward Petherbridge adaptations with my wife (who has, at least in BBC adaptation form, been converted to the love of Lord Peter). Whose Body? is a neat little mystery, and it’s given some depth by the fact that it already deals with Peter’s difficulties about whether he can do detecting as a hobby, or if there’s something wrong with that, etc, etc — and also with his shell shock, which retreats into the background in later books but is a key feature for how he reacts in this book.
He’s a little too perfect, of course, but I knew that going in. I don’t think Sayers had quite settled into what she was doing when she wrote this book, but it’s entertaining and, if you’re not interested in romance, long before Harriet Vane arrives on the scene.
Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Sarah Badel as Harriet Vane and Peter Jones as Bunter
Busman’s Honeymoon, or: the Wimseys will never, ever catch a break.
Honestly, despite the fact that it is a murder investigation, this one is fun. It has plenty of Peter-Harriet banter, plenty of Bunter being the ridiculously amazing manservant that he is, and plenty of heart as well. Peter and Harriet have finally got married, and they’re letting each other in, and Busman’s Honeymoon sees their first hiccups of married life — where Peter’s work as a detective makes Harriet feel like a traitor to friends who are under suspicion, and they have to decide who compromises… I like Sarah Badel’s version of Harriet, laughing and teasing, but warm too.
It’s not just about the relationship, though: there’s a solid mystery at the back of it, which is fun in its own right. And at least with this one, you really feel no pity for the criminal…
Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
I can’t quite remember what the bad mood was that triggered this return to Strong Poison, so soon after I listened to the radioplay version. Fortunately, given Sayers’ witty, clever and allusive writing, it’s never going to be a chore, especially since this is one of the stronger books of the series — and it was a pleasure to realise how strong the fidelity of the radioplay version was, skipping very little of the original novel.
You see, in Strong Poison, Peter falls in love… with a woman who is almost sure to be convicted of the murder of her ex-lover. Knowing she’s innocent, pretty much because he thinks she’s pretty and her character as described doesn’t support the murder theory, he arranges to meet her, immediately proposes to her, and gets her out of the murder charge by finding the real murderer while he’s at it. The banter between them is delightful, as are the moments where Harriet is more vulnerable — she’s not immune to the situation she’s in, as she shows by breaking down in front of Peter.
The actual mystery is fun as well: in retrospect it’s very obvious, because of certain precautions a particular character has taken, but the unfolding of the hows and whys is still interesting, particularly because Bunter and Parker feature fairly strongly alongside Peter. And there’s also the delightful bit where Peter encourages Parker to propose to Lady Mary…
Still a favourite — even if my eyes popped a little at the point where Peter complains how horrible it is seeing Harriet in the dock… to Harriet. And she sympathises with him and says it must be beastly. Gah!
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Joanna David as Harriet Vane and Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey
Gaudy Night is the odd one out in both the radioplays and the books. It was recorded later, I think, and it shows — Ian Carmichael sounds almost winded half the time, though it does get better as the book goes on. It’s quite a different tone, too, because it’s from Harriet’s point of view. In the audiobook, this involves a fair amount of first person narration of her thoughts and feelings, which was never a feature of the other audiobooks, which makes it stand out as well.
That said, it’s a pretty good adaptation, drawing together all the key features well and giving clues through the voice acting as well as the plot. In audio, it’s a little hard to keep track of all the female dons, but that doesn’t seem to get in the way too much. And Harriet’s realisation of her feelings for Peter is well done; I think I prefer Sarah Badel’s take on it in Busman’s Honeymoon, but it works.
The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Peter Jones as Bunter
The Nine Tailors is a book I think about fondly, although I can’t quite think of why. Some of it is the atmosphere, I think: the Englishness of this little village in the Fens, and the music of the bells woven all through the story — or, not music exactly, but the complex mathematical patterns of British bell-ringing. In a way, that’s how this mystery feels, too: it’s complex, with several mistaken identities and a long unsolved mystery. It’s also a sad one, because a family gets shattered through almost no fault of their own.
And the Reverend and his household are dear characters, of course.
The audio adaptation is pretty good, managing to make all the complex threads come together well. Ian Carmichael’s voice acting is great most of the time, though maybe a trifle overblown during the scene in the belfry. I guess it’s difficult to portray that scene without Peter constantly vocalising, though.
Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey
This is a fun story in terms of the whole idea of Peter being undercover, actually working for his living in an advertising company. Here it makes perfect sense that he’s great at it, and the way he pokes around shamelessly is a delight. I’m not so enamoured of any of the secondary characters in this one, though: Parker barely appears, Bunter and Harriet are entirely absent, and the other characters are all new (and confined to this mystery). It remains fun, but it’s not one of the ones that get me emotionally engaged.
It doesn’t help that in the radioplays, Gabriel Woolf no longer voices Parker; it’s someone else, whose voice doesn’t fit half so well. It might if we’d never had Woolf, but as it is, it’s very distracting. I know exactly how the real Parker would say those lines, and this guy is all wrong… It’s much worse than the changing voice actors for Harriet, somehow.
The ending is an interesting one, in terms of Peter’s moral responsibilities. Several times he ends up having pity on the people who have, after all, committed crimes, and giving them an easy way out. They don’t escape to live perfect lives, of course, but all the same, Peter doesn’t hand them over to justice and punishment. It’s something only a gentleman detective could or would do, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Maria Aitken as Harriet Vane
I’ve always loved this book, particularly for the first lines:
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.
The rest of it continues as delightful, and while the BBC radioplay version doesn’t include the narrative stuff like that, it does include a lot of the delightful back and forth between Harriet and Peter — and, beautifully, the wrenching conversation they have when she wants to fight about it. Maria Aitken and Ian Carmichael do an excellent job, and honestly, that partnership is more the attraction when it comes to this book than the mystery plot. Though there are some fun puzzles and red herrings in that too, of course. Still, objectively, Sayers’ books were better when Peter was engaged emotionally, and it isn’t just a puzzle-plot like Five Red Herrings, and that shows with my affection for this one.
Five Red Herrings, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Peter Jones as Bunter
I have to confess I got an awful shock when Inspector Parker made his brief appearance in this book — it’s no longer Gabriel Woolf! I knew it was coming, but gah, I hate the transition every time. And it doesn’t really help that this might be my least favourite of the mysteries: in the original book, it relies on suppressing information that, in the end, wouldn’t actually help the uninformed reader that much. At least that doesn’t happen in this version, but it’s also a murder mystery worked to a very specific timetable, and on a second, third or fourth reading it gets a little tedious. To me, anyway. I’m sure there’s someone for whom Five Red Herrings is their favourite.
Of course, the attraction in Sayers’ clever dialogue and Ian Carmichael’s perfect delivery remains, and with some crochet to occupy my hands, it’s still a pleasant interlude.