There is one fictional character, above all others, that I would absolutely adore to meet. And, if you have read the title, you will have guessed that this character is, of course, called Lord Peter Wimsey. Or just Lord Peter – he’s not a noble, but the brother of one, so first names are allowed when addressing him 🙂
He’s the brainchild of Dorothy L. Sayers, and features in thirteen books written by her. These books are detective stories; but they aren’t just that. The plot’s ingenuity (and trust me, it’ll be ingenious), only makes up a fraction of the story. Her written skill and the detail everything is described in just lifts the novels into a realm of their own.
We’re introduced to him as a shell-shocked man about town living in London, just after the (First) War; fiercely clever, lazy, traumatised yet chilvalrous, and with a penchant for a bit of light detective work. He’s not handsome; his face is described as ‘long’ with blonde hair and a monocle. In other words; he’s the type of character that could not exist today – his whole demeanour is placed so acutely between the two World Wars – a place of ‘afternoon tea’ and shady ‘Bolshevik’ parties; the sprawling manor at ‘Duke’s Denver’ and dreamy spires and shady activities in and around Oxford.
So, you’re probably wondering why this blog post is relevant. I must admit: I have enjoyed that last paragraph; raving about one of my favourite characters EVER. But yes, I see that to someone that has not read any of DL Sayers’ books, or has any intention of reading them (at the moment!) it may not be the most interesting subject. But in my opinion, Dorothy L Sayers has mastered the art of detective fiction.
Why do I think that? Here are a few of my main arguments:
All her books are very atmospheric. The start of one of them, The Nine Tailors, looks like this:
It’s about bell-ringing, and contains an architect’s impression of the church, and a sequence of bells, as well as (if you can read it) some great opening description – all on the first page. Awesome, right?
Lord Peter has family and friends. Instead of just the aloof ‘tec, an eclectic mix of characters make up his background. From his mother, the wonderfully alliterated Dowager Duchess of Denver, to his great mate Freddie (who works on the stock exchange), each extra character supports and aids him in their own way. They each add an aspect of 1920 / 30s life and are able to offer their own views on the particular mystery.
His best friend and brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker, works at Scotland Yard, and often hands criminal cases down to him. This alleviates the notable detective fiction problem of unrealistic mysteries. I’ve read so many series where the amateur detective just ‘happens’ to chance upon hundreds of gruesome murders so that the sequels can keep coming.
Love plays its proper part in the stories. Without taking on overbearing importance, many of the novels have amorous dilemmas twisted into the plot. Of note is a certain Harriet Vane, who refuses to acquiesce to Wimsey’s frequent proposals for seven years. His sister and best friend also have their love story; a deliciously real subplot entwined with unrequited love and a subconscious inferiority complex.
I think the very fact that I have (more than) a slight crush on the main, very fictional, character of these books is testament to how real they seem to be to me.
I’ve read all of them at least thrice and would thoroughly recommend them. They run in this order (the bold = my favourites):
- Whose Body?
- Clouds of Witness
- Unnatural Death
- Lord Peter Views the Body
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
- Strong Poison
- The Five Red Herrings
- Have His Carcase
- Hangman’s Holiday
- Murder Must Advertise – set in an advertising agency, where DL Sayers worked for a while. This gives it an authenticity far beyond anything else I’ve ever read.
- The Nine Tailors
- Gaudy Night
- Busman’s Honeymoon
Plus; it’s worth a listen to the BBC’s 1970s dramatisations of most of the books. With most of them just over a couple of hours long; they are perfect for a long car journey or any other 2-hour activity. And they come with sound effects and everything – the opening and shutting of doors; the soft blowing of a windy morning up on a Scottish moor. Also, Ian Carmichael’s voice as the actor playing PW is just… perfect.
So that ends my fangirling over a random pretend Lord from the 1920s. I promise you; I’d meet him over Justin Bieber any day. But what are your favourite characters of all time? Who would you choose to meet if someone from a story became real for a day? And what’s your favourite detective series?
PS. In relation to the last question, the BBC’s reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman comes a close second. It’s worth checking out as well!
*See list of 11 books above 🙂
Update: Having written this post, I found out about the Dorothy L Sayers Society. They’re a really cool group dedicated to publicising and celebrating her life’s work. Check them out here: