Lord Peter, by Dorothy L. Sayers: A Review

Lord Peter, by Dorothy L. Sayers (Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1987)

Lord Peter, by Dorothy L. Sayers (Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1987)

When I finally went back to Lord Peter, I hadn’t read this collection from cover to cover since I was sixteen or seventeen. Then, it was in a copy checked out from the library, and I can still remember that oddly-patterned library binding cover: you know, the kind that’s supposed to last forever? Although I’ve definitely read through pieces of the collection since then, this is the first time that I’ve absorbed the whole of the volume in a long time, including an introductory essay by some James Sandoe, a “Coda” by Carolyn Heilbrun titled “Sayers, Lord Peter, and God,” and finally the “Codetta” of E.C. Bentley’s parody “Greedy Night”, which satirizes, rather effectively, Sayers’ highly literary style of story-telling. On re-reading, I am reminded that while some writers excel at the short form, and others at the novel, Sayers was a writer who could do both, seemingly with effortless grace and ease.

Lord Peter Wimsey, the flaxen-haired aristocratic amateur detective created by Dorothy L. Sayers and first published in 1922’s Whose Body?, went on to appear in nine further novels. These novels and stories remain some of the best-loved detective stories of the 20th century and are collectively, in this reviewer’s humble view, probably one of the most literate examples of the genre. This collection combines four previous volumes of short stories, Lord Peter Views the Body, Hangman’s Holiday (although it strips out the Montague Egg stories from that volume), In the Teeth of the Evidence (again, removing all but the Wimsey stories, of which there were only two), and Striding Folly, a short work which in Britain is occupied with the final three Wimsey tales (about which more in a moment). Published by Harper & Row in 1972, it unified the Wimsey short stories into one volume which fit nicely alongside the novels, almost all of which were published in the United States by Harper (the exception being, as far as I can make out, The Nine Tailors, which was published by Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich).

The stories in this volume include:

  • The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers
  • The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question
  • The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will
  • The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag
  • The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker
  • The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention
  • The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran
  • The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste
  • The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head
  • The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach
  • The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face
  • The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba
  • The Image in the Mirror
  • The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey
  • The Queen’s Square
  • The Necklace of Pearls
  • In the Teeth of the Evidence
  • Absolutely Elsewhere
  • Striding Folly
  • The Haunted Policeman
  • Talboys

There are some tremendously entertaining stories included in Lord Peter, including “The Abominable History of the Man with the Copper Fingers,” in which a sculptor may have sinister plans for his enemies, “The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach,” which , “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question,” featuring a solution based on a thorough knowledge of the French language, “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba”, and “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey”, among others. The titles alone should give the potential reader a sense of the style of story which awaits: clever, unusual, but eminently civilized. One story even revolves around a crossword, made fiendishly difficult, of course, which leads to a particularly valuable prize.

The two final tales, “The Haunted Policeman” and “Talboys”, post-marriage to Harriet Vane stories, are welcome additions here. In “The Haunted Policeman,” Wimsey is visited by a police constable while his wife recovers on the night of a difficult birth, and solves the mystery which the wandering constable poses to him. And “Talboys,” the final Wimsey tale, is less of a mystery than an amusing scène en famille, set almost a decade later, when the Wimsey ménage has grown to three children, and they are entertaining the unpleasant Miss Quirk, whose theories on child-rearing are useless in the face of the theft of a neighbor’s peach crop.

The Complete Stories, by Dorothy L. Sayers (HarperCollins Perennial, 2002)

The Complete Stories, by Dorothy L. Sayers (HarperCollins Perennial, 2002)

If you are interested in Dorothy Sayers’ writing beyond the Lord Peter mysteries, then it is worth looking into the later volume which replaced Lord Peter, 2002’s The Complete Stories. The latter book includes all those stories omitted from the earlier volume, both the Montague Egg stories and other, non-series short stories, of which there are a dozen, and includes the same introductory essay by James Sandoe. Egg is Sayers’ other, less-known detective, a commercial traveller in wines and spirits for the firm of Plummet and Rose of Picadilly, is engaging and interesting, but never as compelling as the Wimsey stories, to my mind. But for anyone who simply can’t get enough of Sayers’ writing, The Complete Stories is a fuller representation of the author’s work, and should not be overlooked.

As a whole, the Lord Peter Wimsey stories taken as a body are incredibly clever, entertaining, and well-written, and even those which don’t quite succeed are still remarkably good – Sayers’ writing at its weakest is still better than some writers at their strongest. Whichever of these volumes you end up choosing, I doubt that you will be disappointed. Five of five stars. Highly recommended.

Originally reviewed 2 November 2013.

Find your copy of Lord Peter at AbeBooks.com.

Find your copy of The Complete Stories at AbeBooks.com.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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