RogerBW's Blog

Lord Peter Views the Body, Dorothy Sayers 24 February 2018

1928 collection of twelve short mystery stories involving Lord Peter Wimsey.

I am often unconvinced by short mystery stories; I think they're demanding of particular skills which even very good novelists may not possess. There's much less room for development of character and motivation, which is what I tend to find most interesting about mysteries, and usually this is either skated over or ignored completely. But here Sayers manages to pull off both motivation and puzzle, and keeps things lively and different rather than repeating her tricks.

The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers is a club-story, an account of a bizarre happening and then its explanation by Lord Peter. The latter hardly seems necessary given the clues already present in the former, but it wraps things up effectively.

The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question relies on a tiny clue buried in a mass of apparently irrelevant text; that's fair enough, but it's not made clear just who's speaking which bit of it, which is something of a cheat. Much more interestingly, it has an elderly and formerly-scandalous lady whose house is to be the setting for the crime.

The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will is largely an excuse for an extremely cryptic crossword-puzzle (which isn't actually necessary to solve the mystery, but never mind).

'And perhaps Hannah wouldn't be quite so Red if she'd ever had a bean of her own.'

The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag gives us a vision of motoring in days past, and belatedly remembers that there's meant to be a mystery here too; it's unfortunately obvious, and clearly wasn't the point of the story.

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker is mostly a story of sharking the card-shark, in a matter which Leslie Charteris would certainly have understood, but it has some excellent moments apart from that:

Looking round, she perceived a young man, attired in a mauve dressing-gown of great splendour, from beneath the hem of which peeped coyly a pair of primrose silk pyjamas.

'You must think it very strange of me, thrusting myself on you at this hour,' she said, with a nervous laugh.

Lord Peter put his head to one side.

'Don't know the answer to that,' he said. 'If I say, "Not at all," it sounds abandoned. If I say, "Yes, very," it's rude. Supposin' we give it a miss, what? and you tell me what I can do for you.'

It also has a foolish woman who's trying to make amends, portrayed more sympathetically than most authors would have managed in those days.

'Though let me tell you,' said Wimsey, with a wry little twist of the lips, 'that it's sheer foolishness for a woman to have a sense of honour in such matters. It only gives her excruciating pain, and nobody expects it, anyway.'

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention has a Ghostly Apparition for a frankly bizarre reason, some shenanigans that don't quite hold together, and some very pointed digs at the High Church (bells-and-smells) tendency in the Church of England.

'But as you and the gentleman are here, sir, I'm wondering if you'll do me a favour.'

'Of course, Plunkett, anything you like. What is it?'

'Why, just to draw up my will, sir. Old Parson, he used to do it. But I don't fancy this new young man, with his candles and bits of things. It don't seem as if he'd make it good and legal, sir, and I wouldn't like it if there was any dispute after I was gone.

The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran has a murder that doesn't seem to the reader as cryptic as all the characters seem to think it is, with a cunning method of disposal of the weapon that would later be used in a cruder variant by Roald Dahl.

The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste has two people showing up in France claiming to be Lord Peter (and thus the appropriate courier for the military secret); clearly the only way to distinguish them is to hold a wine-tasting.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head brings Peter's young nephew "Gherkins" on stage, with some shades of Uncle Meleager but not enough to feel repetitive.

And on his return, Gherkins, who had always regarded his uncle as a very top-hatted sort of person, actually saw him take from his handkerchief-drawer an undeniable automatic pistol.

It was at this point that Lord Peter was apotheosed from the state of Quite Decent Uncle to that of Glorified Uncle.

The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach has another bizarre will, and while it's slightly racist about Jews is vastly more so about Scots.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face has an apparently senseless, and even impossible-appearing, murder, and an early look into an advertising agency (such as Sayers had worked at, and which of course she'd use at more length later).

The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba has a hugely secretive and sophisticated Crime Syndicate, and Lord Peter infiltrating it – taking two years (while pretending to be dead) to do so, which seems a bit excessive. It relies on a gimmick (a voice-print lock) that seems too obviously a gimmick; I kept wondering whether it would just be another trick.

Not all of these stories are winners, and the novels still work better, but there's good stuff here. Sayers has the tricks of establishing characters quickly, and of not repeating her setups too often even though these stories were presumably published over a span of years and repetition wouldn't have been as obvious to the original readers. (I haven't been able to find original publication information, but I assume that these came out in magazines before being collected here.)

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Previous in series: Unnatural Death | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:13pm on 24 February 2018

    I think that Sayers was herself more of the 'smells and bells' bit of the CoE: there's a bit of herself in Miss Climpson. The observation of the divide between High and Low Church is accurate though.

    THE CAVE OF ALI BABA always struck me as being wrong for the Wimsey style of doing things though there are shades of it in the (much better) Harliquinade sections of MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. She was trying to make Lord Peter into Sexton Blake or Richard Hannay or someone which doesn't suit him.

  2. Posted by Dr Bob at 03:45pm on 27 February 2018

    "clearly the only way to distinguish them is to hold a wine-tasting."

    I think you may have stumbled upon a whole new area of conflict resolution game mechanics for RPGs! :-)

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