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."
"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?
First he resurrected Ian Fleming's James Bond. Now, British author Sebastian Faulks, known for sensitive historical novels like last year's A Possible Life, is taking on another U.K. literary institution: P.G. Wodehouse's iconic butler, Jeeves.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells will be published by St. Martin's on November 5. Faulks was personally chosen by the Wodehouse estate to carry on the Jeeves and Wooster series. "I hope my story will ring bells with aficionados, but also bring new readers to these wonderful books," he has said.
One of the best-known comic series in English literature, the Jeeves and Wooster novels were launched in 1915 with the short story "Extricating Young Gussie." Wodehouse soon found that the reading public had an insatiable appetite for the adventures of upper-class, would-be playboy Bertie Wooster and his resourceful butler, Jeeves. He continued the series—which was twice adapted for television—for nearly 60 years.
In Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Bertie, as usual, is in something of a scrape. Dejected after the girl he fancies gets engaged to someone else, Bertie agrees to help a friend with his own romantic problems. But of course, things don't go as planned, and Jeeves somehow ends up playing the lord while Bertie becomes the servant.
Will you pick up this series reboot?
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. Written when Oyeyemi was still studying for her A-levels, this literary debut blends Nigerian folklore and the British ghost story to create a chilling, compelling story. Oyeyemi, now 29, has gone on to write three more acclaimed novels, most recently Mr. Fox. She was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists earlier this year.
Oyeyemi fluently incorporates Nigerian iconography and mythology into the plot and explains Jess' bizarre behavior (which includes cutting out pictures of twins from schoolbooks) as a meeting of the real and the surreal. While the doppelganger theme runs the risk of being played out given its prevalence in so many timeless works of literature, Oyeyemi adds a new spin by relating this doubling to Nigerian custom and culture. Her imagination is gripping and fearsome and even more estimable given the fact that she is only in her second year of college.
Read the full review from our August 2005 issue here.
Has it really been four years since the publication of Gaiman's last adult novel, Anansi Boys? On June 18, he'll be breaking that streak with The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Morrow). This new modern fantasy—which, at 192 pages, is more of a novella—tells the story of a man who returns to his native English village to confront the horrifying evil he survived as a boy.
It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family's lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed—within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it. His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duck pond is an ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.
Will you be looking for this one?
p.s. Want to analyze Neil's handwriting? Check out the Meet the Author he did for Anansi Boys.
Few first novels have gotten the attention and acclaim of Diane Setterfield's 2006 debut, The Thirteenth Tale. The former French professor's Gothic tale, with echoes of classics like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, struck a chord with book lovers in particular, who sent it straight to the top of the bestseller lists: 70,000 copies were sold in the U.S. in the first two weeks of its release.
In our review, we said that Setterfield would have to write her next book quickly, since readers would be "clamoring for more." But news of a second novel has been slow in coming—Setterfield spent five years writing her first—even though The Thirteenth Tale was sold in the U.S. to Atria and the U.K. to Orion as part of a two-book deal.
But yesterday, Publisher's Lunch reported that Setterfield had sold a novella described only as "a ghost story" to Emily Bestler at her Atria imprint, for publication in fall 2013. While it's a little disappointing to get a novella instead of a second novel, we're happy to finally have news from Setterfield after years of fruitless Google searches. Anyone else looking forward to this one?
Does anyone write about contemporary London better than Zadie Smith? The brilliant writer's new novel, NW (Penguin Press), follows four siblings who made it out of the grim housing estate they were born into, only to be sucked back in when a stranger comes knocking. Reports have Smith describing it as a "very, very small book" but it sounds like big news to us.
Smith herself grew up in northwest London—she was born in Brent in 1975—and still lives there. We are counting the days until this September 4 release, which "brilliantly depicts the modern urban zone—familiar to city dwellers everywhere—in a tragicomic novel as mercurial as the city itself." It's Smith's first novel since 2005's On Beauty. Will you be reading?
Good news for fans of intelligent suspense: Tom Rob Smith's final novel in the Leo Demidov trilogy, which began with the remarkable Child 44, has a release date. Agent 6 (Grand Central) will be published in January 2012.
The book opens in 1965, when Leo and his family are sent to New York City to help warm relations between America and the USSR. But tragedy strikes while he's there, and Moscow denies his request to investigate the wrong done to his family. Leo doesn't take no for an answer, however. As the publisher puts it:
In a surprising, epic story that spans decades and continents—from 1950s Moscow to 1960s America to the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s—Leo's long pursuit of justice will force him to confront everything he ever thought he knew about his country, his family, and himself.
Child 44 came out three years ago this month, and I remember taking the galleys home, intrigued by the concept (a serial killer in Stalinist Russia) but not expecting anything else about the book to be out of the common way. To my surprise, I couldn't put it down. Anyone else looking forward to picking up Agent 6?
p.s. on his blog, Smith says he's working on a fourth book that is "something completely new." He adds, "all I can say at the moment is that it’s a thriller, and it’s not set in the Soviet Union." Also, if anyone speaks German, they have a site up for the German edition of Agent 6 already (it will be released in Europe and the UK this fall).
Book trailers have come a long way—as we've seen with the videos we highlight every week on Trailer Tuesday—but sometimes the simplest route is the best. In this video from Penguin, John le Carré reads an excerpt from his latest book, Our Kind of Traitor (read the BookPage review). His dramatic performance, complete with accents, is a pleasure to listen to.
Of course, book trailer diehards can always turn to the more conventional video for the book from le Carré's New Zealand publisher:
Which approach do you prefer?
After nearly three hundred years of deliberation, Double Falsehood has been included in the latest Arden Edition of the Shakespeare canon, which was published last month. This lost play, first published in 1727, has always claimed to be a reworking of a 1613 play written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, but from the first, Bard watchers have been skeptical. Double Falsehood was clearly not 100% Shakespeare, after all. Even Brean Hammond, the Shakespearean scholar who spent 10 years studying the play and editor of the Arden Shakespeare Edition, believes that the 18th century publisher of the play, Theobald, significantly "cut and altered the work to suit his 18th century audience" though in an interview with the BBC, he says he is certain that Shakespeare "had a strong hand in" the first act, the second act, and at least part of Act III.
The 17th-century stage was somewhat collaborative, but should anything outside of the 1623 First Folio count as canon? Arden and Hammond voted yes, and a reignited interest in Shakespeare is the result.
A representative from Bloomsbury, who publishes the Arden Shakespeare series, says "the Arden General Editors and Arden publisher, Margaret Bartley, took considerable risk in publishing this title because they believed it was in the best interest of Shakespeare scholarship. It was a bold move but true to Arden’s roots as the pre-eminent publisher of Shakespeare and early modern drama studies for more than a century."
Decide for yourself: The Guardian has a short excerpt. I haven't read Shakespeare since college so my opinion means exactly less than zilch, but I have to say I'm curious.
We at BookPage seem to be slightly obsessed with PBS's literary programming. (OK, maybe it's just me.) Another great miniseries is up to bat starting this Sunday: "Return to Cranford." It's a sequel to the 2008 series based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the same name, "Cranford," which won two Emmys and three BAFTAs (until January 10, the original "Cranford" is online). "Return to Cranford" will air in two installments on January 10 and January 17.
Starring some of the U.K.'s most talented actors of a certain age, including Dame Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton, the Cranford episodes are as charming as Gaskell's novel, and full of compassion and humor. Based on Gaskell's hometown of Knutford, in Cheshire, Cranford is a village peopled mostly by women. Above the usual small-town conflicts, the larger specter of modernization—factories and railroads, which were just starting to transform the landscape in the early 1840s—looms, a fact that some in the series adjust to better than others. Imagine Lake Wobegone crossed with "The Golden Girls," and you'll have some idea of the appeal of this warm and welcoming series, which is full of delightfully eccentric characters. But the book (and series) is not all warm fuzzies; the women of Cranford face real difficulties and losses.
Gaskell wrote Cranford to capture the foibles and customs of the generation preceding hers, since social mores and structures were rapidly changing. Her work combines the social satire of Austen with the social conscience of Dickens, and in recent years her novels have made a resurgence in popularity. The opening paragraph of Cranford is as memorable, if not as well known, as the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? . . . the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. "A man," as one of them observed to me once, "is SO in the way in the house!"
Anyone else a fan of Gaskell or the adaptations of her books? I hear the North & South miniseries that came out a few years ago was equally wonderful.