I am indebted to my great aunts (particularly to my great aunt Jane), for introducing me to Lord Peter Wimsey. My great aunts, besides being three of the most fascinating women I’ve ever met, were avid readers. From a very early age, I was in awe of their bookshelves. As I grew up, I began recognizing the authors and works that graced their shelves — not just the familiar great authors, like Shakespeare (my aunt Jane loved her Shakespeare), but also the less-known great authors, like Dorothy Sayers.
The first time I heard Sayers’ name mentioned in a class in college, my mind went back to those bookshelves. That was the only knowledge of her I had at that time. Her books were neatly lined up at eye-level, their worn covers hinting of repeated readings. Perhaps they were passed around to friends and discussed over bridge. Maybe they were comfort on rainy West Virginia evenings or companions with early-morning coffee before work.
All I know is that after reading about the escapades of Lord Peter Wimsey, I look forward to discussing them with my aunt Jane someday in Heaven. Her name is penned in blue on the inside cover of Unnatural Death. I want to know what she thought about the masked harlequin or Wimsey’s range of talents. Did she follow the timelines, riddles, and intricacies of Five Red Herrings, The Nine Tailors, or Have His Carcase? Most of all, I want to know what she and her sisters thought about Harriet Vane. Did my aunt Jett, a single woman who was educated at a time when women were more likely to marry straight out of high school than attend college (much less graduate school) find Vane to be a boon companion? Did the three women, who worked so hard to educate themselves, find solace in Sayers’ articulate treatment of the challenges of the time?
Some literary critics brush the works aside, declaring them nothing special and not worthy of much attention. Many people have told me that they’re nothing more than pleasure reading, with no message or lesson, nothing deeper to discover than what they seem at first glance. I disagree. They are pleasurable reading, but they are so much more than well-written detective stories. I think there are many treasures within them, and every book has themes, characters, and situations which can be debated, weighed, and discussed.
I’m in awe of Sayer’s command of the language, and her historical and literary allusions astound me. Parts made me laugh at loud. Others made me lie in bed unable to fall asleep. She treats taboo subjects (including drugs, cohabitation, homosexuality, and pregnancy out of wedlock) with a deft tactfulness and discernment that our modern society lacks. But what I enjoyed above all was the complexity and evolution of her main characters.
It is most important — I beg of you — that if you’re going to read any Lord Peter Wimsey, you read them in order. Reading books in order has always been a little neurosis of mine — but I think it is a neurosis with good justification behind it. When you watch the end of a movie, for example, it’s impossible to watch the beginning with the same effect as someone who has never seen the end. In the same way, if books are written in a series, generally it is far better to begin at the beginning and read them through to the end, even if each book can stand on its own.
Similar to another English detective hero of mine, Christopher Foyle, it is the character development of Lord Peter that shines through the series, even brighter than the individual storylines. Both Foyle and Wimsey are complex characters whose creators develop them so masterfully and subtly that the end leaves you looking back to the beginning, marveling about what happened right under your nose. Each story stands alone and can be read without knowledge of the story before it — but why would you do that to yourself, when you could have the joy of getting to know a character so intimately?
At the end of the last Wimsey novel, which I finished moments ago with great sadness, Sayers gives you a window into a part of Lord Peter’s life you haven’t witnessed thus far. The other novels end closely upon the solution of the case. This one continues, almost as a gift to the readers who dread reading the final page of Lord Peter’s exploits. There, in those last pages, you are given one more piece of the puzzle that is Wimsey. You thought you knew everything about him, but his character has developed, and the new situation he finds himself in allows the reader an intimate look at the multi-faceted man.
There is one more Lord Peter book out there, one that I didn’t inherit from my wonderful aunts. I’m almost reluctant to find it — after such grand closure, I wonder if it won’t be like the latest season of Foyle’s War. It was great to have Foyle back, but the episodes seemed tacked on- an effort to bring back the beloved detective to appease his fans, but an effort that lacked the finesse of the previous episodes.
I think I might go back and re-read Whose Body? again. Thanks, Watson sisters. You’ve given me a friend.