Thursday, 2 March 2017

Lord Peter Wimsey is rather insufferable - but two of Dorothy L. Sayers' Wimsey novels are masterpieces

For many years, I failed to reach  the end of any of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. The problem wasn't the plots or the settings or any form of inverted snobbery - it's just that, in the books I tried to read,  Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey came across as one of those utterly insufferable amateur detectives who - if he hadn't been titled - would have been advised to buzz off and mind his own bleeding business by any policeman in whose case he attempted to interfere. Not only is he frightfully brainy (a first at Oxford, obvs.), but he's also a superb athlete - despite being a gourmet and an oenophile. He collects "incunabula" (a word which makes one's fists clench), and is a gifted classical pianist (Bach is a speciality). He drives a 1927 12-cylinder Daimler, which he calls "Mrs. Merdle", after a character in Little Dorrit. And he can quote poetry at the drop a hat (and not just "Daffodils" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade"). He also served in the army with distinction (naturally) during the World War One, and occasionally helps out the government with a spot of espionage in jolly old Europe. But even more annoying than all that... his penchant for dropping the "g" from words ending "ing". He goes "swimmin'"; things are "toppin'". I don't know about you, but I find this fanfuckingtastically "irritatin'".  What's worse, he doesn't drop the "g" from all "ing" words, so you end up literally losin' the plot as you try to figure out whether there's any sort of pattern to this maddenin' habit/affectation.

S.S. Van Dine's American detective story hero, Philo Vance - a contemporary of Lord Peter's - is another supercilious g-dropper. I managed 20 pages of The Benson Murder Case (1926) before deciding never to try reading another one, because I couldn't bear the thought of staggering through a constant blizzard of pointless apostrophes: "disheartenin' predic'ment", "don't y'know" etc. - or of spending any more time in the company of "New York's leading flâneur and art connoisseur," especially when he says things like: "I am suffused with blushes at the disgrace of it." What a ponce!

But I persisted with Dorothy L. Sayers, simply because I admired her translation of The Divine Comedy, which I read many years ago. I was eventually rewarded by discovering that one of her Wimsey novels - Murder Must Advertise - was extremely entertaining (it's set against the background of an advertising agency based on Bensons, the firm which employed her as a copywriter for many years), and that two of her later detective tales, Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors, not only work as mysteries, but are, by any standard, thoroughly accomplished novels.

Gaudy Night (1935) is set in an all-female Oxford college, modelled on Somerville, which Sayers attended. The detective novelist Harriet Vane (the love of Lord Peter's life) returns for her college Gaudy (i.e. a get-together of Old Girls, and it's pronounced "Gowdee"), only to discover her old alma mater beset by a spate of spiteful ad feminem, anti-social activity. Like Josephine's Tey's masterly Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a girls' physical education academy, the crimes in Gaudy Night provide an opportunity to examine the stresses, strains and benefits of living in an essentially kindly but pressurised, semi-monastic, all-female environment: it's far more what used to be known as a "novel of character" than a whodunnit. It benefits from Wimsey being largely absent, and, when he does eventually appear, he is markedly less annoyin' than usual. As with the sprightly Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night benefits greatly from the fact that Sayers was writing about an environment with which she was intimately familiar (and which she adored) - and from her evident desire to communicate her passionate belief in scholarship for its own sake: these two factors contribute to the book's strangely moving quality.

Her other masterpiece (I don't think that's too strong a word) is The Nine Tailors, published the year before Gaudy Night.  This is pure Wimsey: Harriet Vane is entirely absent. The story, which takes place over the course of a year, begins with Lord Peter and his manservant, Bunter, finding themselves stranded by a car accident in the Fenland village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year's Eve. To repay the local rector for putting them up while the Daimler is being repaired, Wimsey agrees to fill in as one of the church's nine bell-ringers due to perform a nine-hour peal that very night (one of the regulars has Spanish flu). The local squire is found murdered the next day, but it takes Wimsey a year to solve the mystery, and he only does so by returning to the village the following Christmas, when the whole area is promptly devastated by flooding. The vivid and technically detailed description of the inundation is particularly fine, as is the depiction of hundreds of stricken locals seeking, and finding, sanctuary in the local church, which stands like an ark, slightly elevated above the village and the immense flatness of the surrounding countryside. Again, Sayers' own experience comes into play here: she had grown up in a rectory, and the kindly, patient rector in the novel is apparently based on her own father.

Dorothy L. Sayers had no experience of bell-ringing before deciding to write The Nine Tailors - and she never actually rang a bell in her life, but she researched the subject of change ringing (i.e. the pattern of chimes changes after each round, in accordance with established conventions - it all sounds fiendishly complicated) so deeply - almost obsessively - that she delayed writing the book until she had mastered the subject, and tossed off Murder Must Advertise as a bit of light relief before returning to her main task. While Sayers never actually rang any bells, she could perform all the changes in her head, and, because the novel explains the change ringing system so clearly, it became an officially  recommended text for campanologists. The following passage gives a flavour:
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo--tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom--tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom--every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells--little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul. 
In the unlikely event that anyone feels the need to read some Dorothy L. Sayers - or if you've tried one of her novels and found it disappointing - I would strongly suggest trying any of these three: they represent Dorothy L. Sayers at the height of her powers. Having written them, she seems to have felt it was a case of Mission Accomplished, and basically forsook detective fiction writing. There was one more Wimsey novel, Busman's Honeymoon, a mildly amusing piece of drawing-room folderol, which was a novelisation of a successful stage play she had written, and one more short story. After that, it was Christian apologetics and translating Dante.

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