My favourite mystery series of all time is the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers. I also enjoy her short stories about the crafty salesman, Montague Egg.
Despite the irritating class structure, a slightly misogynist air (chapter titles range from “A use for spinsters,” to “Lord Peter Turns a Trick) and a know-it-all main character, the Lord Wimsey stories are so appealing, the BBC made them into television shows. Sayers sarcastic humour stands out and she always manages to turn the story in a direction that isn’t immediately obvious.
The best things about reading Sayers’ mysteries, however, are her characters. They all seem like real personalities despite exaggerated traits and overblown situations.
The key character is Wimsey himself, of course, who is an honourable but eccentric example of England’s upper class who feels ugly but is extraordinarily-good at everything. Stories about this ideal man include feats showing his success at playing the piano, scoring in cricket and leading his men in World War II trenches. No matter what the situation, he knows exactly what to do, but is also charming and kind. He’s also rich and never gets angry.
Every story also includes at least one scene with the doting Bunter, Lord Wimsey’s fussing efficient assistant who manages to fill a variety of expert roles, including photography, chemistry and under-cover spying.
Only a few include the Sayers-like character Harriet Vane, who is described as a best-selling independent mystery writer and the love of Wimsey’s life.
His able old-fashioned lawyer, Mr. Murbles, handles legal trials along the way. Particularly nice characters show up over and over, including Mary, the sister he hardly knows and an affable police detective named Parker. Unbelievable characters appear in very believable circumstances, including a ghost uncle, his fun-loving mother, his fuss-budget older brother and his brother’s wife, the super-critical Helen.
The best character of all is an extraordinary woman detective named Miss Climpson, who runs an all-lady detective agency for Wimsey.
She is my ears and tongue and especially my nose,” said Lord Peter, dramatically in Unnatural Death “She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush…I send a lady with a long, woolly jumper on knitting needles and jingly things round her neck. Of course she asks questions—everybody expets it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed. And so-called superfluity is agreeable and usually disposed of.”
These great characters, particularly the female ones, arise from a life of varied experiences. Born to the chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford and his wife in 1893, Sayers crossed many boundaries for women during her lifetime. She didn’t get a degree immediately after finishing studying at Somerville College in Oxford, because women couldn’t have them at that time, although she did get one five years later, in 1920.
Sayers had a son, John Anthony, “out-of-wedlock” in 1924, although she never told anyone he was her son and asked her cousin to raise him. She adopted him after marrying a journalist named Oswald Arthur Mac Fleming.
She began her Wimsey series a year later while working full-time as an advertising copywriter. She began writing full time in 1932 and died 35 years later.
Her son and his heirs kept her stories in print, which is why so many of them were published by “The Trustees of Anthony Fleming, Deceased”
Her Wimsey stories include:
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, 1921
- The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran, 1921
- Whose Body, 1923
- The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers, 1924
- The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question, 1925
- The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, 1925
- The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag, 1925
- The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, 1925
- The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker, 1926
- Clouds of Witness, 1926, in which Wimsey’s brother, the Duke of Denver is accused of murder.
- Unnatural Death, 1927
- The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste, 1927
- The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach, 1927
- The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, 1928
- Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928 (12 short stories, most in London)
- The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, 1928
- The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba, 1928-1930.
- Strong Poison (1st Harriet Vane, 1930)
- Five Red Herrings, March 1931 (Artists in Galloway Scotland) “The plot was invented to fit a locality”
- Have His Carcase (2nd Harriet Vane, 1932, “the locality was invented to fit a plot”–walking holiday along the beaches near Wilvercome, on the south-west coast of England)
- Murder Must Advertise, 1933
- In The Teeth of the Evidence, 1933
- Hangman’s Holiday, 1933
- The Nine Tailors, 1934
- Striding Folly, 1934
- Gaudy Night, 1935
- Thrones, Dominations 1936
- The Haunted Policeman, 1936
- Busman’s Honeymoon, 1937
- Talboys, 1942