Tuesday Night Club: Dorothy L Sayers, the early books



The Tuesday Night Club is an informal group of crime fiction fans choosing a new 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.

Helen Szamuely is collecting the links this month - her blog is here. 








 
 
Have his carcase hiker



Dorothy L Sayers and I have a long history: I read all her books in my teens, and she has been delighting me ever since. And she has been a permanent regular on the blog too: as I’m fond of remembering, her Have His Carcase featured in the first ever Clothes in Books blogpost four years ago, and then twice more. The picture above, chosen for the hiking holiday in the book, by blog favourite William Orpen, still to me is a perfect image of Harriet Vane.

For this post, I decided to look again at the first four Wimsey novels – roughly speaking, I like the series more as it goes on, my real favourites are the later books, so I thought it might be as well to remind myself of the ones I am least likely to re-read, a good foundation for the future pleasures of writing about that romance. (Well, two romances really – Lord Peter and Harriet, and the one between DLS and her detective.)


Whose Body?

is the first of the series (1923) and held two surprises (and only two – the crime is neither interesting nor surprising).

The first is that on the opening page Lord Peter Wimsey is described thus:
His long amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.
This sentence would give you a quite false impression of what the book, the writing, and the author’s attitude to her detective are going to be like.

The second surprise comes in the exhumation scene. Sayers likes them – there’s one in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club too, as featured in my Guardian piece on digging up bodies in literature – although apparently she gets all the details wrong. In real life they are not the horror-film-set affairs she shows, in the middle of the night and with grieving relatives watching in tears. Anyway, the surprise is – that Lord Peter’s mother is Lucy. She is Honoria elsewhere in the series – her second name is Lucasta and perhaps Lucy came from that. I don’t think she is referred to as Lucy any other time.

Wimsey is tiresome and tedious, and in one sense fully-formed – he is rich and important and annoyingly clever (he can do everything except play chess) and talks in a maddeningly arch – perhaps whimsical - way. It seems certain that if Sayers had stopped with this one then the book would now be forgotten, not even worth a British Library reprint.



 Clouds of Witness


was the next book (in 1926), and it is a big step forward – much much better. This is a blog entry on Clouds – I remember I was particularly proud of the title, CSI:Bunter (the manservant of that name is doing some forensic detecting, checking for bloodstains on a tweed skirt) and this excellent picture –


Clouds of witness


What could be more Lady Mary (Lord Peter’s sister now, we’re not at Downton Abbey) in her shooting tweeds, when it’s actually early moviestar Dorothy Gish?



 Unnatural Death

was next up, 1927  – something of an oddity, with a very unusual (and medically disputed) murder method, and a complex legal point about inheritance at stake. It’s very clear from early on who the villain is, and she is a spectacularly unpleasant woman. She is also a lesbian, and there is a startling scene where she tries to seduce (and also possibly poison) Lord Peter, despite her obvious complete repulsion from touching a man.
She is calling herself Mrs Forrest, a pseudonym, and Lord Peter is calling himself Mr Templeton, confusingly (which, oddly, would be the name of Harriet Vane’s fictional detective in later books…). And just look at her -
Mrs Forrest nodded her fantastically turbanned head. Swathed to the eyebrows in gold tissue, with only two flat crescents of yellow hair plastered over her cheek-bones, she looked, in an exotic smoking-suit of embroidered tissue, like a young prince out of the Arabian Nights. Her heavily ringed hands busied themselves with the coffee-cups.
I’ve always wanted to do this scene, but have never been able to find the picture – maybe something like this?

 
Unnatural Death


In this book - and again in a later one - Lord Peter wonders is his investigating in this case was mere meddling which actually caused subsequent murders, and everything would have been much simpler if he'd just let everything be.


The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
 
is the fourth Wimsey crime novel, (1928), which I re-read for the purposes of the Tuesday Night Club, and enjoyed much more than I was expecting. I had forgotten whole whorls of the plot – the book kicks off with a dead body found in a gentlemen’s club on Armistice Day. At first there is no suspicion about his death, but it becomes vital – because of another death and an inheritance issue – to establish the exact time he died. The book presents a terrific picture of London life of the day – the soldiers back from the War and unhappy, the bohemians and the artists, the health crazes, the importance of Armistice Day. There is an all-too-convincing picture of a bickering unhappy couple who have no money: it seems likely it represented Sayers and her husband at that time.

 
I’ll look at more of the books next week, and of course the very important arrival of Harriet D Vane.

























Comments

  1. Wimsey certainly does grow and evolve as a character, doesn't he, Moira? The mysteries themselves get better, too, I think, as the series goes on. But I think it's Wimsey's character (and later, Harriet's) that really make this series get better as it goes.

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    1. Yes Margot - I know some people don't like the romance, don't like Harriet, but for many of us they are the best thing about the series.

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  2. Poor George and Sheila! George may be a bit of an old-fashioned bully, but Sheila winds him up. Subtle not to make her a doormat?

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    1. I was entirely on Sheila's side - George was whiny and pass-agg (as it wasn't called then). Nothing she could do was right. I don't think having money later was going to help that relationship. (Any more than it helped Sayers and her odd husband.)

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  3. I've just started reading the Lord Wimsey books and I'm enjoying them. I was sick last year and couldn't concentrate much and a book of her short stories saw me through.

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    1. I'm sure you'll be a fan - and then you can re-read them endlessly. Surprisingly, that works well even when you know the plots.

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  4. THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB is my favourite Sayers. Beautifully plotted and the whole business about the time of death is handled very skillfully. It also has Wimsey at his best.

    For me this is Sayers at her peak.

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    1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it on a re-read - and there was a lot I had forgotten. Wonderful picture of London of the era, and the whole Armistice Day scenario.

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  5. I've always found UNNATURAL DEATH to be very re-readable. And it introduces Miss Climpson to Inspector Parker!

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    1. Yes, I didn't actually re-read Unnatural Death for this post, but I really should. I am very much enjoying looking at the books again.

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  6. Poor old WHOSE BODY? doesn't get much love, does it? When the BBC did the Carmichael series back in the early '70s the decision was made very early on not to do an adaption of it. It's not the best of the books, although it's not that bad, surely? I can still recall the fascinating moment late on in the book where Wimsey suddenly suffers a recurrence of his shell shock. Even back then he was one of the more human Great Detectives.

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    1. Do you know, since re-reading it last week (and then being rather rude) I have been thinking about it, and remembering its good points, which were more than I gave it credit for. The Dowager is a good and unusual character, and her comments of Jewish people at least show Sayers trying, even though she is often accused of being anti-Semitic. If I had a scoring system for books, I would add extra points or stars right now!

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  7. How about the first picture in this blog for the lady from Unnatural Death?

    http://kickshawproductions.com/blog/?p=10528

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    1. Oh my goodness, yes, that is perfect in every detail...

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    2. I know, I noticed - I honestly wonder if she'd seen that picture, it's so exact...

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  8. Moira, I have never read Dorothy L. Sayers (I'm becoming repetitive with that line) but I'd surely like to read something by her; probably her first book "Whose Body?" that will introduce me to Lord Peter Wimsey and his series.

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    1. Prashatn, I think that you have an interest in English history, as well as crime stories, and iconic detective authors - all that combined means that you really should read Sayers!

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    2. Sorry *PRASHANT*, I know perfectly well how to spell your name!

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    3. No problem, Moira. What's in a name? It's me that counts!

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  9. Replies
    1. You are excused from looking on Tuesdays then.

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  10. I would have said Sayers was one of my favorite mystery authors, until I reread a few that I did not like that much. I had read all of the books, and I still have the copies, and pick up different ones when they turn up at the book sale. I still love Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Murder Must Advertise. I will have to reread The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Noah had an edition with a skeleton on the cover in his post.

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    1. I remember seeing a good skeleton in his collection, and thought of you. I think there are some I like very much (nine Tailors, Advertize, Gaudy Night) but really not bothered about some of the others...

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