Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey is arguably one of the greatest characters to grace the pages of twentieth century detective fiction. For some reason, he tends to be somewhat overlooked, although most lists should rate him right up there with Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Dr. Gideon Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale, Father Brown, and the other great luminaries of early twentieth century detective fiction. He is the quintessential English gentleman detective, the one who set the stereotype for the lordly but witty, upper-class but endearing, and amateur but supremely talented sleuth. You know the type – Dr. David Keel from The Avengers TV show , certain versions of James Bond, The Saint, Raffles the gentleman thief – but now you know why you know the type. Lord Peter Wimsey is a cliche now, an Eton and Oxford educated, cricket playin’, g-dropping, fop-about-town who conceals a tremendous and even ruthless intellect behind a facade of affable facetiousness. He plays cricket like one born to it, is mightily proficient at the piano, and in a separate book (Murder Must Advertise), creates an extremely successful campaign for advertising cigarettes. He also excels with children, by the simple dint of treating them with the same courtesy and attention one would extent to an adult. He is both an expert sommelier and a bibliophile, both of which avocations are showcased in wonderful narrative prose in two of the stories in this book (The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste and The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head).
Lord Peter Views the Body is a collection of short stories, and the author, Dorothy Sayers, said that she used to live vicariously through Lord Peter Wimsey; when she was in a shabby little one room apartment she gave Wimsey a magnificent suite on Piccadilly Street, and when she couldn’t afford bus-fare for a journey she gave Wimsey a 1927 4-seater Daimler.
Sayers was a fascinating person in her own right. She worked in the Benson Advertising Bureau as a copywriter for many years, and was responsible for coining the “Guinness Is Good For You” jingle, as well as the slogan “It Pays To Advertise”. Hence the setting of Murder Must Advertise is completely authentic. In fact, that is probably the best thing about the books, they offer a real window into British society in the early twentieth century, The realism is palpable, and forms a great contrast to some of the other authors of the time, who tended to create very idealized tropes with stereotypical characters, like Agatha Christie or P.G Wodehouse. Sayers’ books are also a lot more political, the Wimsey books tackle the great issues of the time – Nazism, the ethics of advertising, science vs religion, and the modern feminist movement, among others. She also said she only wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey books in order to make enough money to support her career as a Christian humanist and a classical scholar. Her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is largely considered to be the definitive one. In fact her translation of the famous line “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” is different; she translates it as “Lay down all hope, those of you who go by me.” This, according to Classicists, is a much better rendition for not only is it a better literal translation, it also fits into the Italian terza rima rhyme scheme. She was also a good friend of C.S Lewis, and Tolkien read her books too. But this is tangential. Back to Lord Peter Wimsey.
Wimsey looks like you would expect him to, a cross (in the author’s own words) between Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire with blonde hair, a beakish nose, and a vaguely foolish face. Personally, I think Lord Peter Wimsey is a lot more like the incomparable Psmith, P.G Wodehouse’s first creation, the hyper-intelligent gadfly. To look at him, you wouldn’t think he served on the Western Front during the Great War and attained the rank of major, or was appointed an Intelligence Officer and successfully infiltrated the staff room of a German Officer. He was that rare breed of staff officer, one extremely popular with his men. Indeed, his faithful amanuensis, one Mervyn Bunter, shares with Wimsey the experience of shell shock and being seriously wounded whilst in military service. During that time, they arrange for Bunter to become Wimsey’s valet, assuming they both survive the war. Which, of course, they do, and Bunter becomes Wimsey’s gentleman’s personal gentleman and investigative assistant, while maintaining absolute decorum despite the fact that they are extremely close friends.
He appears impetuous, but is actually ruthless, and is a master manipulator, using surface emotions to befuddle others into dismissing him as an irritating , stereotypical British aristocrat, a toffee nosed fop in a top hat and monocle, and to paraphrase P.G Wodehouse, ‘a gadfly, a popinjay, and a flibberty-gibbet’. The ironic thing though, is that he actually is annoyingly and insatiably curious, often to the point of apparent lunacy, but there is always method behind the madness. Like the time when he pestered the station announcers so much about the mechanics of their system that he accidentally discovered a code bookies were using to send results back and forth. This type of sleuth is usually paired with an intelligent, clever and quick thinking policeman, in this case, Sergeant, later Commander, Charles Parker. This one of the things that makes Sayers and Wimsey unique for their time, with their reversal of the traditional tropes of the genre. Only Parker and Bunter really know what Wimsey is capable of.
Tangentially, I really like the thought of Bunter and Jeeves running into each other at The Junior Ganymede. Of course you have to have read a lot of the books to wrap your head around that.One of the many wonderful features of Sayers’ writing is the sometimes gentle indictment of the British class system as it operated then, unlike Wodehouse, who exploited it for comical effect.
Wimsey is a gloriously whimsical and lackadaisical polymath, capable of many feats, each of which is showcased in the short stories that make up this book. In one of my favorite stories (The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba), he stages his own death and works undercover for over a year; creating, donning, and living an entirely new identity in order to infiltrate and break the most prolific gang of thieves ever to operate in London. Quintessential upper class cloak-and-dagger stuff, one of the best examples there is. His linguistic skills also shine through in The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question, wherein the whole case is solved because of a tiny French grammatical error on the part of the thief. To quote the thief directly, “Once more I must congratulate my lord. He is the only Englishman I know with the ability to truly appreciate our beautiful language.” Incidentally, he speaks fluent German too.
In The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste, which is probably my favorite story in the book, Wimsey successfully guesses the names and years of a series of particular vintages – wine, brandy, and hock – in order to obtain war-time intelligence. He doesn’t get it, but it doesn’t matter. The only other story I’ve read which comes even close in using blind wine taste-testing with such verve and savoir-faire as the plot mechanism is Roald Dahl’s Taste. Which is one story in another absolutely brilliant collection, and one I will definitely review subsequently. There’s also a Jeffrey Archer story in one of his books which revolves around wine tasting, but it is way out of its league in comparison to these two.
The rest of the stories are a clever blend of contrived situations and deductive process, with motifs ranging from solving life-size crossword puzzles (The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will), fiendishly clever concealed murder weapons (The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran), a sublimely erudite treasure hunt using clues from a rare and ancient manuscript (The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head), to an iron plated mistress (The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers), the last of which added whole new dimensions to the term ‘Iron Maiden’. I won’t give away why here, given that it is the most macabre story in the book.
In some senses, the Wimsey short stories are better than the novels, and in this rapid back-and-forth day and age they provide the reader with nice, bite sized readings, perfect for an underground commute or to idle away sometime in a car or a plane. The novels are extremely readable as well, but tend to be a little stuffy and occasionally stilted, especially when judged by current standards. While I would recommend all of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, begin with Whose Body if you want to start chronologically. Lord Peter Views the Body is probably the best one to start with, though. The Wimsey books have also been adapted for the stage (in 1947 and 1957) as well as the screen, the most recent being the BBC adaptation in 1987. I’d say it’s long overdue for another re-haul, and Benedict Cumberbatch would make a terrific Lord Peter Wimsey. Wishful thinking, I suppose.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org