Monday, January 28, 2008

Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers

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I confess that trying to choose books for the decades list has been overwhelming, so I've had to take a step back to mentally regroup. As usual, that mental regrouping has led to rereading some old favorites to cleanse my palate so to speak. Let me go on the record as a lover of mysteries, especially British mysteries of a certain era. With odd exceptions (P.D. James, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George), I dislike modern mysteries- too much blood, too much violence, too much cursing, too little plotting- but the old standbys are always worth a reread, even when I know all too well whodunit.

I've been reading Agatha Christie since elementary school, and have an admittedly troubling affection for Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. When I had worked my way through everything Christie had to offer, a helpful librarian recommended Dorothy Sayers as another writer along the same lines. I read one of Sayers' Wimsey novels (can't remember which one) and found it almost incomprehensible, it was certainly nothing at all like those Christie books I loved. With all the smug wisdom of a 13 year old, I wrote off "that Sayers woman", and happily embraced another recommendation (Ngaio Marsh who thankfully wrote another long series of Christie-like mysteries).

Flash forward some 10 or 15 years, and I picked up a Sayers novel at my local library sale- for $0.50 a book, I'll grab almost anything that looks vaguely readable to give it a try. I sped through Strong Poison and was hooked- it turns out "that Sayers woman" is a genius. I set to work acquiring the whole set, and was truly crushed that there weren't more available. I remain convinced that there were many more Peter Wimsey stories that could have been told.

Many people criticize Sayers for making Wimsey too eccentric and simultaneously too perfect, but I've never been bothered by his affectations when reading. Harriet Vane has a story that closely mimics that of Sayers herself (minus the murder charge of course) but I only learned that by reading Wikipedia, and Harriet remains a favorite character for me. The romance between Peter and Harriet spans four books (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon) and I have to admit these are my top four of the Wimsey novels. Gaudy Night is especially notable for its detailed picture of Oxford life, and its focus on Harriet and women at Oxford rather than on Peter or on a murder (the more usual fare).

I find Sayers' writing exceptional, her references to classics educational, and her character explorations inspirational. If you like mysteries, or maybe even just a good love story with a few bodies thrown in, I highly recommend any of the four novels highlighted up above (but start with Strong Poison if you're a person who wants the story to unfold in order). The passages in Busman's Honeymoon about marriage and expectations are some of the most interesting relationship assessments I've ever read, and certainly make me stop and think even more now that I'm married and working through some of the same questions.

Other reviews (per Weekly Geeks):
A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

3 comments:

Mella DP said...

I love Sayers - including her nonfiction. Though I admit I found The Nine Tailors almost unreadable, don't know why. Do you read Josephine Tey?

CQ in DC said...

Mella,
Daughter of Time is one of my favorite books ever, and launched a lifetime love affair with British history. As a 12 year old, I got booted from the Tower of London tour for my outspoken defense of Richard (at the time the tour info said he did killed the princes). The tour guide told my mother, "perhaps you would both be happier with a self-guided tour." It didn't help I had more random knowledge of the Elizabethan era than the guide and so had attracted a little following of fellow Americans with my running commentary...

Mella DP said...

That's hilarious! Daughter of Time was a text for one of my college seminars that examined the relationships between history, myth and literature. Good stuff.

I don't care much for the current mystery scene either. My favorite Christie is probably They Came to Baghdad.