The Nine Tailors
Dorothy L. Sayers
299 pages
published in 1934

When I was throwing some books into my bag to read while with my parents I also put in this one. A nice book to read on sunday, I thought. Started reading just one chapter whilst on the train. Finished it before the train rolled into Middelburg station, my destination. Compelling, you might say.

This is Dorothy Sayers doing Agatha Christie, no two ways about it. It exhudes the cosiness, the sheer Englishness of Christie's style of detective novel, with its small English country side village and like inhabitants, yet it's still a Lord Peter story. Very different from frex Murder must Advertise.

Have his Carcass
Dorothy L. Sayers
444 pages

A Harriet Vane/Lord Peter murder mystery. Harriet stumbles over a body when she's doing a walking tour of the south west coast of England. It seems an obvious case of suicide, but of course neither Harriet nor Lord Peter are satisfied with that...

Five Red Herrings
Dorothy L. Sayers
286 pages
published in 1931

Another of Sayer's very readable detective novels, once again starring Lord Peter Wimsy. The setting this time is a small fishing and painter community in Scotland.

When the local bully, Campbell, turns up dead one morning, seemingly having tumbled down into a brook where he was painting, Lord Peter soon finds out it was murder, not accident that put him there. With six suspects none of which have satisfying alibies, all of which have motive to do Campbell in, Lord Peter has a tough patch to how. But he knows there are five red herrings and he has already found the clue which will lead him to the murderer.

Enjoyable as always, this book is however spoiled a bit by the clumsy way in which the clue that lead Lord Peter to consider it murder is kept from the reader. We are told that the clue will not be revealed and if we were clever enough we should've deduced it on our own anyway. Which didn't endear me to the book.

There's also a lot of somewhat tedious detail concerning timetabels and railway schedules in here, but nothing over much.

Strong Poison
Dorothy L. Sayers
192 pages
published in 1930.

In Strong Poison Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love with the main suspect in a murder trail, a writer of detective novels called Harriet Vane. Now he only has a few days to prove she's innocent and his vaunted deductive skills have left him...

Enjoyable as all Lord Peter stories, this is the start of the long romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, which continues through much of the later books, though not all. It may be thought that Harriet Vane is a stand in for Sayers herself, though she certainly isn't a Mary Sue character.

I strongly advice to read this book before reading any of Have his Carcass, Gaudy Night and Busman's Holiday. These four novels should be read in order.

Avoid the old, 1968/70 New English Library edition of this book, as the cover has a whopping big spoiler on it.

Clouds of Witness
Dorothy L. Sayers
254 pages
published in 1926

When Lord Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver is accused of murder, the case is complicated by the fact that the Duke refuses to cooperate with the investigation. Lord Peter still manages to solve the case of course, but it wasn't easy.

A good detective story, but not as brilliant as the later Wimsey novels.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Dorothy L. Sayers
222 pages
published in 1921

One of the earliest Lord Peter adventures, this novel shows Sayers still honing her craft. The story itself is entertaining enough, but it has few of the pleasures of the later Wimsey novels, their psychological insights.

Gaudy Night
Dorothy L. Sayers
447 pages
published in 1935

Gaudy Night is the third of the Lord Peter books to star Harriet Vane as well; in fact, this is far more her story then it's Lord Peter's. As such it's a logical progression from Strong Poison where we saw her as little more then the object of Peter's sudden infatuation to Have His Carcass where we followed both Harriet's and Peter's thoughts, to this book, in which Lord Peter stays in the background, even if his presence permeates the entire books. It's also again a step further away from being a pure mystery book. Harriet's own inner struggles are just as important.

All of which confirms the general tend in Dorothy Sayer's novels. She started out writing almost purely plot driven mysteries, with her hero being more of a type then a person. Lord Peter as the somewhat foolish, foppish but brilliant amateur sleuth is kin to monsieur Hercule Poirot, the vain fussy Belgian but brilliant detective. Over time however her characters evolved, became real, three dimensional people and it's here in Gaudy Night that's she's reached the height of her skills. In the previous two novels which featured Harriet Vane she never came alive to me; she did this time.

Gaudy Night is set at the fictional Shrewsbury College, a women only college in Oxford, where Harriet Vane was educated and from which she got an invitation for the college's Gaudy Night, a reunion of old students held every year. While she is there, a bizarre series of pranks starts up and eventually she's asked to investigate on the quiet, under the cover of doing some research.

From this setup, the main theme of the novel develops, which is the struggle within Harriet between wanting to retreat to a life of scholarship of rejoining Shrewsbury College and her (unvoiced and unadmitted ) love for Lord Peter and possible marriage to him. Which can be read as a personification of the larger struggle for women in general between marriage and academic career. The mystery of the pranks reinforce it, as they harp on this theme. The upshot of this is to leave Harriet somewhat confused and conflicted and Lord Peter is not available to help out for the biggest part of the book...

Around this, the life in Shrewsbury College is lovingly described, reminding me strongly of A. S. Byatt's Possession. For me at least, this is the best of the Lord Peter books, even if this could hardly be called a Lord Peter book...

Unnatural Death
Dorothy L. Sayers
286 pages
published in 1927

I found this book, as I do so many others, in an Oxfam shop in Plymouth. Though I already had a copy of this novel on my to read pile, Sandra, who's also fond of Dorothy Sayer's mysteries, didn't anymore. It is in fact a nicer edition them my own copy, which is a hideously Four Square edition with a garish pulpy cover while this is one of the later New English Libray editions. Unfortunately it seems to have a larger then usual number of misprints.

But all this is of little influence on the story itself, which is of course another early Lord Peter adventure. Like all of of the early (1920ties) Lord Peter adventures I've read, this is a competent, entertaining story but nothing more then that. Reading this after, say Murder Must Advertise will leave a vague sense of disappointment. However, if you approach it as light entertainment it's a good enough story.

The case revolves around the sudden, slightly mysterious but not unexpected death of old Agatha Dawson, who had been suffering from cancer for a long time, but whom her doctor thought was in little danger of dying just yet. By coincidence Lord Peter gets to hear the story from this doctor, gets interested and starts investigating the case. He suspects the niece of miss Dawson, Mary Whittaker, but there's little evidence. From what little clues he has, he slowly but surely starts to built his case, but in the meantime more people die...

What makes this story interesting beyond the fairly standard plot, is how it illustrates just how much has changed socially between it's publication date and now. There is of course the whole class issue, taken far more seriously then than now but more prominent is the change in sexual and racial mores.

Agatha Dawson used to live together with Mary's aunt, Miss Whittaker for a god number of years until the latter died and Agatha asked Mary to live with her. Neither Miss Dawson nor Miss Whittaker was ever married or showed any interest in marriage and throughout the book it's strongly hinted at that they were gay and having a relationship. While this is only hinted at, at the same time the words nigger and blackamoor are casually used by several people in the book when refering to a dark skinned man from the West Indies - though never directly by the author herself. The weird thing is, Inspector Parker, Peter's friend from scotland Yard, uses it as a neutral term, not an racist epithet. These days no sane person would bat an eyelid at gay characters in a detective novel, but would squirm at the use of the "n-word". I certainly did, especially because it was used so casually, by a good spirited character.

Do not infer from the above that the relationship between miss Dawson and miss Whittaker was disapproved off, either by the author herself or her characters. Quite the contrary, while neither could bring themselves to be open about it, they both accept it as part of the natural order of things. A most English attitude, I think.

Busman's Honeymoon
Dorothy L. Sayers
397 pages
published in 1937

The direct sequel to Gaudy Night and which should only be read after it. Lord Peter and Harriet are finally married and spent their honeymoon at an old farmhouse called Talboys, near the village where Harriet grew up. They had bought the house just before their wedding and supposedly everything was in order for their honeymoon. But when they arrive, they're puzzled to find that nobody knows anything about them and the previous owner, mr Noakes seems to have vanished...

Unsurprising for a detective novel, mr Noakes does turn up a day or so later --as a corpse. Lord Peter and Harriet are now in the unenviable situation of having to solve a murder during their honeymoon: a true busman's honeymoon.

Like Gaudy Night this is more then just a detective story, as the continuing evolution of Lord Peter and Harriet's love is as important as the murder mystery. This is fine with me. I don't read Dorothy Sayer's books for the murders, I read them for the atmosphere, the casual asides, the descriptions, the small incidentals and of course the characters. In a lesser writer's story those would be cardboard: The Detective Husband and Wife, the Dedicated Butler, The Schoolmarm, etc. With Dorothy Sayers, each of them comes alive, no matter how small a part they play.

Taking central stage of course, are Lord Peter Wimsey and his new wife, Lady Harriet Wimsey (né Vane). That Busman's Honeymoon is their story and not that of the murder is shown in how the story doesn't end with the denouncement, instead it ends in Lord Peter's ancestral home with the both of them keeping vigil until the murderer is hanged. Whereas in a classic murder mystery the emphasis is on the puzzle, on the mechanics of the murder and the aftermath is unimportant, here what's happens after the crime is solved is just as important, perhaps even more so. Murder is not an intriguing parlor game here, an amusing mystery for the cool detective to solve and forget about, it's something that happens to flesh and blood people, victim, detective, bystanders and murderer alike. Could Lord Peter ignore this reality before, by now it affects him profoundly, knowing he has condemned somebody to death by hanging.

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