Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries were favorites of mine in my teen years, and I recently decided to avoid the TBR pile that's staring me down and revisit them. Set in the late 20s and early 30s, the 11-book series follows the crime-solving career of the debonair Lord Peter, whose idle aristocratic mien (complete with monocle) is at odds with his sharp wit and vigorous pursuit of crooks of all sorts. My favorite Wimseys are the ones that feature his relationship with Harriet Vane, and Strong Poison, #6 in the series, marks her first appearance.

When Lord Peter and Harriet meet, Harriet is on trial for the murder of her ex-lover, an annoying failed-artist type who appears to have succumbed to arsenic poisoning. Given that Harriet, a mystery novelist, has just completed a manuscript about a murderer who uses—you guessed it—arsenic on one of his victims, she is the main suspect. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, but the jury is hung. A retrial is scheduled, giving Peter just one month to prove the innocence of the woman who has suddenly (and not at all purposely) stolen his heart.

The relationship between Harriet and Peter is notable in its honesty and hard-fought egalitarianism—which makes it all the more romantic. Harriet is bitter and burned after her last encounter with love, and whatever feelings she might have considered entertaining for Peter are complicated by the fact that she must feel grateful to him for his efforts to clear her name.

This all sounds very intense, so perhaps I should say that it's not. Like her protagonist, Sayers is a master at putting a light and clever spin on even the most serious of topics, mainly with her sparkling dialogue (an adjective that's overused, but very appropriate here). Here's the response to one of Peter's proposals to Harriet, during a visit to the prison:

“It's very good of you—"

"No, no, not at all. It's my hobby. Not proposing to people, I don't mean, but investigating things. Well, cheer-frightfully-ho and all that. And I'll call again, if I may."  

"I will give the footman orders to admit you," said the prisoner, gravely, "you will always find me at home.”

Or take this conversation between Wimsey and Miss Climpson, "a tough, thin, elderly woman with a sound digestion and a militant High Church conscience of remarkable staying power" who is on Harriet's jury and whom he later sends to investigate an element of the case:

“Do you know how to pick a lock?"

"Not in the least, I'm afraid."

"I often wonder what we go to school for," said Wimsey.

Harriet's position as a novelist also allows for Sayers to get in some marvelous jabs on the subject of writing:

“I say—I've thought of a good plot for a detective story."

"Really?"

"Top-hole. You know, the sort that people bring out and say 'I've often thought of doing it myself, if only I could find time to sit down and write it.' I gather that sitting down is all that is necessary for producing masterpieces.”

Sayers had a degree in modern languages and considered her translation work (which includes a version of The Divine Comedy) to be her greatest legacy. But her logical and well-ordered mind served her well when constructing her intricate mysteries. When she died, Sayers left two incomplete books in the Wimsey series, which were eventually completed by a novelist chosen by the estate, Jill Paton Walsh. (Walsh has gone on to write another Wimsey/Vane book on her own, with a second, The Late Scholar, scheduled for release this summer.) I am a little afraid to read these, since it's hard to believe that another writer could capture such iconic characters in just the way that Sayers did . . . but I may have to give them a try.

 

What have you been rereading lately? 

 

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