January 19, 2007

Lord Peter Wimsey

As his Whimsy takes him

Debrett's Peerage lists him as:
Wimsey, Peter Death Bredon, DSO; _born_ 1890, _2nd son of_ Mortimer Gerald Bredon Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver, and of Honoria Lucasta, _daughter of_ Francis Delagardie of Bellingham Manor, Hants.
_Educated_: Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford (1st class honours, Sch. of Mod. Hist. 1912); served with H.M. Forces 1914/18 (Major, Rifle Brigade). _Author of_: "Notes on the collecting of Incunabula", "The Murderer's Vade-Mecum", etc. _Recreations_: Criminology, bibliophily; music; cricket
_Clubs_: Marlborough; Egotists'. _Residences_: 110A Piccadilly, W.; Bredon Hall, Duke's Denver, Norfolk.
_Arms_: Sable, 3 mice courant, argent; crest, a domestic cat crouched as to spring, proper; motto: As my Whimsy takes me.

Lord Peter Wimsey is charming, suave, and arguably the most clear-thinking detective ever penned. A stately gentleman with a monocle perched on his nose, he used to play cricket while at Oxford. He is a compulsive bibliophile and spends his spare time collecting first editions of old Latin works.

He does not have the superhuman abilities and encyclopedic knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, but neither is he an armchair detective like Hercule Poirot. He solves his cases by using a combination of reasoning power and an understanding of the workings of the human mind, often out-thinking the perpetrators. He could be thought of as a psychological detective.

He is a creation of Dorothy L Sayers, and is said to be the most convincing male character ever created by a female author. He made his first appearance in "Whose Body", and he does come off looking like a "silly ass" on occasion. But the Bertie Wooster persona is just a sham; Lord Peter is nothing short of a detective genius.

He appears in the following books, which I have NOT listed in chronological order:

  1. Whose Body - A nude corpse is found in a quiet architect's bathtub, while elsewhere a rich financier goes missing.
  2. Murder Must Advertise - Lord Peter's alter ego, Death Bredon, gets a job at an advertising agency to trace out the inexplicable death of an employee.
  3. Unnatural Death - An elderly, ailing lady died three years ago. No suspicions were aroused, except that of Lord Peter.
  4. The Unpleasantness at Bellona Club - An old gentleman dies in his armchair at Bellona Club, but no one notices for several hours. At nearly the same time, his sister also dies, and a legal battle ensues between the hiers over who died first.
  5. Clouds of Witness - Lord Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver is accused of murdering his sister Lady Mary Wimsey's fiance. While both of them are very tight-lipped about the whole affair, it's upto Lord Peter and his close friend, Inspector Parker to prove their innocence.
  6. Nine Tailors - More of a study in Campanology than a murder mystery. Campanology, or change ringing, the art of ringing church bells with mathematical precision. Lord Peter solves a mystery involving a stolen necklace using his knowledge of change ringing.
  7. Strong Poison - Lord Peter meets Harriet Vane for the first time. Harriet is in court, accused of poisoning her ex-lover. All evidence supports her guilt, while Lord Peter sets about proving her innocence.
  8. Have his Carcase - Harriet Vane finds a body on an isolated beach, with the throat cut and the blood still running. She photographs the scene and is helped by Lord Peter to solve the crime.
  9. Gaudy Night - Harriet Vane is invited to her college reunion, and rethinks her own feelings about Lord Peter, while trying to explain the extraordinary events that occur in the college.
  10. Busman's Honeymoon - Lord Peter and Harriet Vane marry and move to an old country house for their honeymoon. They find the caretaker dead in the basement, with severe head injuries.

The works of Dorothy L. Sayers are very erudite and demand a certain amount of scientific thinking and literary knowledge of the reader. The vast amounts of background research done by Ms. Sayers is evident in all her books.

Her mysteries were all written and set in the period between the world wars, and the themes often touch on subjects which were definitely taboo in those times. Topics such as living in, lesbianism, etc. are central to the mysteries, showing the forward thinking nature of Ms. Sayers.

Another curious aspect is that her stories draw strongly from her own life experiences. The events in Harriet Vane's life closely mimics that of Ms. Sayers, especially in the book Strong Poison.

Her books reflect life in England between the world wars. They depict the society, the changing mores, and the imminent collapse of the British aristocracy. Lord Peter, though himself a member of the aristocracy, doesn't think much of the whole system, and often doesn't use his title when introducing himself to strangers.
In Lord Peter, Ms. Sayers has created an ideal man. He has no chinks in his armour, no defects in the system. He is perfect, physically and psychologically, save for an occasional attack of shell-shock after an incident in a trench in WW 1.

The books are very enjoyable, and will have you hooked from cover to cover. The stories are crafted so brilliantly, that it is very difficult to guess the murderer through the course of the book, and often the answer comes as a surprise to the reader.

In all, very highly recommended.