I’ve posted here before about my great love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, the book in which her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey finally gets the girl after five years of patient (though not always well-thought-out) wooing. I lover Lord Peter, I love Harriet Vane, and I love Sayers’ writing, so I often reread Gaudy Night and fairly often re-read the two Lord Peter/Harriet novels that precede it (Strong Poison and Have His Carcase) and the sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon.
I already knew those four books extremely well when, about ten or fifteen years ago, I decided I really should read the rest of the Lord Peter novels, the earlier ones that don’t have Harriet in them (as well as two that cover the period of their sort-of courtship but focus on Lord Peter’s adventures apart from Harriet. There are also a couple of collections of short stories). I enjoyed all those as well, but haven’t reread any of them for years.
The online book club in which I participate read one of the Lord Peter novels, The Nine Tailors, last month. When I reread it, I somehow got sucked back into re-reading the whole series. So I ended up reading all the novels (with the exception of Five Red Herrings, the only book of the series I don’t like and will never reread; it’s boring) and the collection of three short stories that come after Busman’s Honeymoon. It was a wonderful experience; they are simply the best, with language that is delicious and evocative and unforgettable characters. Even in the earliest novel, Whose Body, when the characterization of Lord Peter is far thinner and more superficial than it will become in later books, there is still the capacity to surprise the reader. Anyone who picked up the book when it was first published in the 1920s, and whose expectations of detective novels had been shaped by Sherlock Holmes, would have been jarred to find the murder investigation derailed when the brilliant detective suffers a brutal attack of shell-shock with flashbacks to his time in the trenches, and has to retire from the scene for awhile to recover from his breakdown.
As I’ve said before, I am not a great reader of mysteries, and the main reason I love the Lord Peter books is probably that they are so much more than just mysteries. They are incisive, thoughtful and funny explorations of time, place, class and society, and the character development of the hero as he matures and especially as his relationship with Harriet Vane develops, is a masterpiece of storytelling. These will probably always be among my favourite books in the entire world.