Tuesday Night Club: The Wimsey Exam Paper

The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a newSayers author to write about each month – and the finger has pointed at Dorothy L Sayers for February. We’ll all be producing pieces about her and her books on Tuesdays: new and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

Last week’s links are here
Week one  links are here.

I looked at the first four books in this entry, at THAT romance in week 2. Now read on….


Last week’s entry for Tuesday Night bloggers turned out to be surprisingly controversial and brought readers in droves to tell me I was wrong about what Lord Peter meant by one short passage in Busman’s Honeymoon. I really enjoyed all the discussion, and the certainty with which people told me I was wrong, though nobody has yet given me any possible meaning for this line:
‘If you had had to live through that night, Harriet, knowing what was coming to you, I would have lived through it in the same knowledge…’
What does ‘in the same knowledge’ mean? He can’t possibly mean ‘I would know if you were going to be hanged the next day’ because – of course he would know, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So WHAT is the knowledge? Still asking.

Anyway, all that inspired me to assemble some other key Sayers questions that interest me, though I think they will be less controversial.

I have framed them as an exam in Wimsey Studies for you. We know Sayers, with her very great respect for academia, would surely approve. No prizes – knowledge is its own reward. But I will be very happy if some of these questions can be resolved:


The Wimsey Exam Paper

1) a) Suggest up to FOUR improvements to the drug distribution system in Murder Must Advertise. You might consider the following questions: Was it feasible? How long would it take to explain it to the criminal operatives? How many different ways can you imagine in which it would go wrong? Did the authorities really collect old telephone books in the 1930s (as opposed to the subscriber putting them in the bin)?
b) Do you think Sayers made it up because it was fun to imagine, and because the clue of the wrong pub was nicely done?

2) What did that chess set in Gaudy Night (ch 13) actually look like?
There was a set of carved ivory chessmen for which she had conceived an unreasonable affection. They were Chinese, and each piece was a complicated nest of little revolving balls, delicate as fine lace.
Either draw a diagram, or find a picture of such a chess set.
(Helpful counter-example: This is plainly what it didn’t look like - it’s a chess queen in walrus tusk from the Walters Art Museum)

Chess Walters 

3) Who posted the letters from Eastern Europe in Have His Carcase?

4) Was the Dowager’s name Lucy (see Whose Body?) or Honoria Lucasta (everywhere else)? Subsequent to the first Wimsey book did Sayers fancy something more fancy, then give her the second name Lucasta in order to explain away the first reference?

5) Consider this passage about Helen, Duchess of Denver, at her own party (Murder must Advertise, ch 11):
Her own dress, she thought, became her… One must be fashionable, though one would not, of course, be vulgarly immodest. Helen considered that she was showing the exact number of vertebrae that the occasion demanded. One less would be incorrect; one more would be over-modern.
What IS the correct number of vertebrae to display in an evening dress? (Unlike Helen herself, you can have one either way.)

6) Sayers seems to dislike the character of Helen, despite the poor woman marrying into such an impossible family and then getting the difficult Harriet for a new sister-in-law (-in-law).

Name any character who was remotely bothered on her behalf about her husband being unfaithful to her. (Clouds of Witness)
Supplementary: Would a gold cigarette lighter have been a very reasonable present? (Busman’s Honeymoon)

7) ‘To me, ‘Bunter’ will always be the overweight schoolboy Billy Bunter, shouting ‘Yarooh!’ and waiting for a postal order, and first appearing in print in 1908.’ Discuss.

8) Did young women in Oxford in the 1930s really sunbathe in their underwear in public places (Gaudy Night)? You will be expected to reference this key earlier discussion on the blog and this one in the Guardian, but this is a summary of the facts:
Even the Dean, who is so broad-minded, thinks a brassiere and a pair of drawers rather unsuitable for sun-bathing in the quad. It isn’t so much the male undergraduates – they’re used to it – but after all, when the Heads of the men’s colleges come to call on the Warden, they really ought to be able to get through the grounds without blushing.

Gaudy Night uwear
9) In Gaudy Night again, Sayers’ alter ego Harriet Vane is questioned closely by an academic about something scientific in one of her previous books –
‘I was discussing it with Professor Higgins… Tell me, what did you have to go upon?’
‘Well, I got a pretty good opinion,’ said Harriet, feeling a hideous qualm of uncertainty and cursing Professor Higgins from the bottom of her heart.
Assuming this was based on an actual experience Sayers may have had at a social event, do you think she was being called on to defend the murder method in a) Unnatural Death or b) The Nine Tailors? Both have been called into question. Give reasons for your choice.

Answers on one side of the paper please, with your name clearly printed at the top. Or alternately, put them in the comments.

The top picture is (unexpectedly?) by Edward Hopper. Although Wimsey doesn’t wear his harlequin outfit to the event in question 5, the general tenor of the picture demanded it be used. It is from the Athenaeum website and could be an illo from Murder Must Advertise.


  1. I love the way you've framed this, Moira! Priceless! I love your comment about Bunter's name. I think we've all had that sort of feeling about a character's name at some point. And, speaking of names, good spot on tha Dowager's name. I wouldn't be surprised if that's exactly why Sayers changed her name. I like the name Lucy, but perhaps she didn't think it formal enough?

    1. Thanks Margot - I enjoyed remembering all the questions I have had about the books over the years. And as I said before, all this without prejudice to my being a huge fan of Sayers and the books.

  2. I did pen a 500 word essay on why I dislike GA crime fiction, but my dog ate it.

    1. I'm sorry, I'm going to have to register that as a fail. I think you might at least have claimed that you put it in the phone book that was collected by the authorities as in Murder Must Advertise.

  3. I found lots of chess sets that would fit by Googling for "puzzle ball chess piece".

    No, nobody sympathises with Helen.

    To me, he's Sergeant Bunter, faithful Figaro and minder.

    Question: Does Peter ever tell Harriet about the PTSD?

    1. I took a look, and finally, after more than 30 years, had a vision of what they looked like - Thank You. I'd not realized that the chesspiece stood on top of the ball. Frankly they look hideous. But valuable.
      Is the end of Busman's Honeymoon the first time Harriet finds Peter in a state?

    2. There's a reference somewhere to an evening when he took Harriet out at the end of (or possibly during) a trying case and she is so concerned she takes him home and hands him over to Bunter, so she must have had an inkling.

    3. Thanks Elspeth, good point. Can't remember where that is but I'm sure you are right.

  4. Regarding the Dowager's name: In the area of the country where I was brought up, it was very common for girls to be called by only their middle name. I always thought that "Lucy" was an intimate nickname for Lucasta, since it's a close friend of the Dowager who uses it. Does anyone actually call the Dowager Honoria?

    1. I've certainly come across people who use their second name, but it wasn't common where I come from! (which, btw, is most certainly not a world of duchesses). At the beginning of Busman's Honeymoon, her closest friend writes to her as 'My Dear Honoria'.

  5. I don't remember any of this. It has been probably 10 years since I read any of these, but even so, I don't remember these kinds of details for very long.

    1. If you ever read them again you will have a faint memory of this, you'll be thinking 'now what is it about that chess set that's ringing a bell?'

  6. I'm actually starting to feel sympathetic to Helen, Duchess of Denver. It can't be easy to have your life revolve around social prestige and then have your husband arrested for killing your sister-in-law's fiance, only to be alibied by spending time with his mistress. And just when things calm down, your brother-in-law marries a woman who was tried for the murder of her lover -- AND she is wearing a gold lame wedding dress. But I believe there is a single person who probably offered her a sympathetic ear: Marjorie, Lady Grummidge, to whom Helen writes a lengthy grumble in the beginning chapter of Busman's Honeymoon.

  7. Moira: The set may be a little large but I love the image:


    Christie's might have another available for you for 15,000 pounds or so ......

    1. Ah yes, that is a very clear picture. Still somehow don't fancy it, so though otherwise of course I would've bought it... well, maybe not.

    2. Yes, that's them (I mean, those are they). I have something similar in my vintage mystery folder on Pinterest. Well, at least the knight survived.

    3. I am so glad to be able to imagine them, after so many years of not having a clue what they looked like. Even though they came to a sad end.

  8. The Drug Distribution and Phone Book Collection. Whew! The only thing I found farfetched about that was that Peter and co. sat down in a room (warehouse?) full of discarded phone books for the whole of London!!!! and flipped through them until they came across the revealing marked-up books (the right ones!) among thousands of other marked up books. Really?

    Surely that could have been more convincingly handled.

    1. I know! I think she just loved her idea of the phone book plan, and didn't want to think about how unlikely it was...

  9. I honestly feel rather sorry for Helen. Her husband was not exactly stellar and lovable as a spouse. He presumably married her because he wanted a correct and respectable wife, and then cheated with someone who was everything Helen wasn't. Add in that he ended up on trial for murder in order to protect his mistress, but in doing so let Helen in for a load of unpleasantness.
    The Dowager would have been a dreadful mother-in-law to have, especially living on the estate in the Dower house. She was a rotten mother to Mary, I always thought. Poor Mary was an afterthought to her whole family- I'm so glad she ended up with Charles, who really did love and respect her. I doubt she and Helen were close, though.
    And Peter- well, Helen didn't understand him, and he felt contemptuous about her, so I think he also wasn't much help. When it comes to Harriet, is it totally unreasonable to feel less than thrilled about a future sister-in-law who has also featured in a major scandal and murder trial? Or to wonder if she's likely to cause another one?
    IRRC, the later books kill off both Gerald and Jerry, so she is left widowed with only her daughter(I think Winifred survived?). I presume she loved both her children, but all things considered, she ended up worse off than anyone else in the family.

    1. I absolutely agree - Sayers seems to assume we'll share her views of these characters, but I don't think we do. And a complex family life indeed.
      I'm so glad you made me re-visit this post - I really enjoyed re-reading it, and am rather proud of it!

  10. The hanged in the morning question. I always assumed PW was saying If you were to have died, then I would have too.
    (Typical PW upstaging, although I do love him, it's sometimes a pity he can't even buy a 2nd hand chess set without singing madrigals.)

    1. Thank you, finally someone else who agrees with me! I just can't see that that sentence would mean everything else. And yes, that's quite a serious moment to be making it all about him.
      I think he would drive a woman mad in real life, including DLS - he does seem to have been created to be her ideal man, but I think it might not have worked. My contention is that when I was a teenager I thought him the most romantic man ever, but then time ticked on...


Post a Comment