As My Whimsy Took Me

I never know where my reading whimsy will take me. Earlier this year it took me to the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers. I give the character of Lord Peter Wimsey an A+, but I give the books grades ranging from C+ (for Gaudy Night) to A- (for Have His Carcase and Unnatural Death).

I read all of these books months ago, so I don’t remember every detail, but I will try to give a little synopsis for each and an explanation of why I did or didn’t like it. I never quite finished the series, so maybe next year, after I’ve had a good long break from it, I’ll try to read the rest. Here are the ones that I have read so far, in no particular order.

Whose Body?
Grade: B+

This is the first in the series. When a body is found in someone’s bathtub and another person goes missing, could they be the same person? It’s a decent mystery and Lord Peter is a hoot and a half.

Strong Poison
Grade: B+

Strong Poison is the fifth in the series and the first to feature Wimsey’s love interest, Harriet Vane. Harriet is a mystery novelist who has been accused of murdering her former lover. Lord Peter sees her in the dock and is instantly smitten. He believes that she is innocent and sets out to find the real murderer. The book starts slowly and IMHO awkwardly, but gets better as Lord Peter starts sleuthing.

Hangman’s Holiday
Grade: B

This is a collection of short stories. Some feature Lord Peter Wimsey and some feature a traveling salesperson named Montague Egg. I liked some of the stories and found others to be tedious. I’m not sure if I quite finished the book, but I read the majority of stories, and certainly all of those that featured Peter Wimsey. I would recommend this one only for serious fans.

Clouds of Witness
Grade: B+

This is the second in the series. In this one, Peter’s brother is accused of murder, but he refuses to produce an alibi. Naturally Peter starts sleuthing to clear his brother’s name. Though it wasn’t the best mystery, I enjoyed reading more about Peter Wimsey and his family.

The Five Red Herrings
Grade: B-

This story takes place in a coastal Scottish village that is a haven to fishers and painters alike. One artist, a particularly unpopular resident, gets killed and, since nobody liked him, everybody is a suspect. While I respect that many of the characters are Scottish, interpreting their accents gave me a headache, and the book-long obsession with train schedules (used as a clue) bored me near to tears. I barely finished this one. Not recommended except for die-hard fans.

Gaudy Night
Grade: C+

Though classified as a Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night is really all about Harriet Vane. Harriet goes back to Oxford for a school reunion (called a “gaudy”). She becomes involved in a mystery (poison pen letters, pranks, etc.) and stays on to investigate it.

Sayers was clearly irritated by the notion that a woman had to choose between a husband and academics, and she went on and on about it. I don’t blame her. But modern readers may have a hard time relating. I did, anyway. Were it a better book, I’d say read it for the historical perspective, because we need to remember how it was so that we won’t let it be that way again.

But Gaudy Night is also slow-paced and terribly dull at times. There are too many characters, and none of them is likeable, not even Harriet! And ironically, given the feminist bent of the book, Harriet’s investigation into the mystery is so slow and inept that she has to be bailed out in the end by her adoring suitor, Peter Wimsey. Not recommended.

Have His Carcase
Grade: A-

In Have His Carcase, Harriet Vane is taking a walk along the shore when she finds a body (the “carcase”—mentally turn that silly “e” into an “s” and think “carcass”). She can’t move the body, but she’s a mystery writer, and she knows the body is going to be washed back to sea, not to be seen again before all evidence is destroyed by the water. So she takes pictures and notes and then reports it to the nearest police station she can find. This was an interesting mystery because the body was missing. I don’t remember why I liked this one more than some of the others, but I suspect it was Wimsey’s amusing banter.

Unnatural Death
Grade: A-

In Unnatural Death a doctor feels that his patient, an elderly woman with cancer, has died a bit sooner than she should have. Peter Wimsey takes it upon himself to investigate, and as he finds more clues, murders starts piling up. In the end, you know he will find the murderer, but a question arises—is justice worth the additional deaths that his investigation seems to be prompting? I think that that question may have weighed the mystery down a bit, but Peter Wimsey’s amusing banter is probably what buoyed it up to an A-.

Busman’s Honeymoon
Grade: B+

It took some maneuvering to get Peter Wimsey and his new bride into a honeymoon home with a dead body, but Sayers managed it. And while the story might feel contrived and even a bit depressing at times, it is worth reading for fans of the series. I really enjoyed parts of it, but overall it wasn’t that great.

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