I can’t remember why and I can’t remember when, but a couple of years or so ago I took it into my head to read the novels of Dorothy L Sayers. I’ve always known that they exist and I was vaguely aware that they were about Lord Peter Wimsey and (as I thought) Harriet Vane. I was even more vaguely aware that one of them was set in Scotland. But I had never read them because I don’t read crime.
Something must have triggered the impulse. Maybe I read something that made me think they wouldn’t be too distressing in terms of blood, gore and violence. Perhaps something caused me to become intrigued by the Wimsey-Vane relationship. Or it could be that I was just bored and desperate for something new (to me) to read. Whatever the reason, I found out that Whose Body? was the first in the series, discovered that there was a copy in our Fiction Reserve (I’m a librarian in a public library service) and began reading.
It took a few chapters to acclimatise to Sayers’ style of writing and another couple to accept Lord Peter with all his mannerisms and affectations but after that there was no stopping me. I jogged through it in no time and went to find Clouds of Witness – only to discover that we didn’t have a copy. And here’s where ebooks come into their own: five minutes later I was following Lord Peter and the inestimable Bunter across Europe to the north of England there to save the Duke of Denver from an inglorious end.
From that point on I was completely entangled. I read my way through the entire series, giving up the pretence that I might not download them all pretty quickly. Unnatural Death isn’t my favourite but I was drawn into the tangled murderous puzzle. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a favourite. The repercussions of the Great War are explored without ever detracting from the murder mystery; in fact they are very much a part of it.
By the time I got as far as Strong Poison I was engrossed, immersed in Lord Peter’s world and understanding why his creator might have fallen slightly in love with him. But I felt indefinably let down by Harriet Vane. I could excuse her behaviour whilst she was on trial for her life and, to be honest, I thought that Lord Peter’s declarations of love in that novel were a tad ridiculous. But I could have shaken the pair of them in Have his Carcase. He tried to cover his fear and uncertainty with flippancy and she with bursts of temper and petulance. However they both became more faceted characters in the course of the book and I thoroughly enjoyed the story.
Onwards I went, enjoying everything. I was bemused by Five Red Herrings, set in beautiful Kircudbright (firmly in the Scottish Lowlands, regardless of Barry Forshaw’s assertions in his introduction!) and full of train journeys and road trips. I love Galloway and I had a great time reading the novel but I felt, and still feel, that it’s not really a part of the series. It could sit anywhere, or nowhere, within it. Back in London, Murder Must Advertise left me uncertain. There are elements I really enjoyed – the window onto Charles and Mary Parker’s domestic life springs to mind – but the whole Harlequin masquerade with Dian de Momerie left me uncomfortable and strangely embarrassed for Lord Peter.
And now I must confess: I am not hugely enamoured of The Nine Tailors. I thought it, like its setting, gloomy and bogged down. I recognise that the writing is good but the storytelling, for me, is lacking. I didn’t much care what happened to any of the characters and I don’t care if I never read another word about bell-ringing. However, I read it and moved on. To Gaudy Night, the other novel of choice for many diehard Sayers readers. Thankfully, I can hold my head up again in their company. I loved Gaudy Night. I liked the Oxford it evoked, I liked the academic setting and the setting in time; I liked the fact that Dorothy Sayers assumed her readers to be intelligent, well-read and disposed to discuss and debate ideas and dilemmas. Mostly I liked Peter and Harriet and their attempts to be honest with themselves and each other.
Finally, Busman’s Honeymoon. For me, it’s an example of keeping the best until the last. So many series of novels end with the impending marriage or resolved relationship of the hero and heroine. Busman’s Honeymoon explores the complexities of a developing committed relationship. As far as I’m concerned the murder is simply a backdrop to the profound mystery of Peter and Harriet’s marriage and their growing awareness of each other’s complexities, vulnerabilities and sensitivities. The Lord Peter Wimsey of this novel is so far removed from the man we first meet in Whose Body? that they might as well be two different characters. Interestingly, his constant companion, Bunter, has changed not at all. It would take Jill Paton Walsh to alter that…