It’s a Mystery: “As My Whimsy Takes Me”
By Jill Paton Walsh
Minotaur Books, 2011
It has been over eighty years since Lord Peter Wimsey’s first recorded utterance: “Oh, damn!” as he remembers he has forgotten the Brocklebury sale catalogue of rare books, and asks the cab driver to return to 110 Piccadilly. There he is caught by his mother, Honoria, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, on the telephone asking him what can be done for the hapless little Mr. Thipps, who is embarrassed by an unknown dead man in his bathtub “with nothing on but a pair of pince-nez…. The Duchess was always of the greatest assistance to his hobby of criminal investigation.” Dispatching his man Bunter to attend the book sale, Lord Peter hastens to the side of Mr. Thipps. “Exit the amateur of first editions, enter Sherlock Holmes, disguised as a walking gentleman.” Thus began Dorothy L. Sayers’s first Wimsey detective novel, Whose Body? (1923), an auspicious debut that proclaimed a new star in the firmament.
Whose Body? introduces us not only to Wimsey, “the noble sleuth,” but to his peerless manservant Mervyn Bunter, who was Wimsey’s batman during “The Great War” and volunteered to be his valet afterward. Bunter, by his side in all of the Wimsey novels, is the ultimate gentleman’s gentleman. He ensures that his master is perfectly dressed, he cooks excellent meals, he is knowledgeable regarding spirits, wines, and cigars and is faultless when dealing with social etiquette whether concerning dukes or tramps. He is also a splendid amateur photographer, a hobby that proves invaluable to Wimsey’s detective work. Sayers claimed to have based Bunter on P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves; to this day, when the name Bunter comes up, so does the phrase, “obviously related to Jeeves.” Although the resemblance is apt, I find that Wimsey and Bunter are quite distinct from Wooster and Jeeves, less arch perhaps. Of course, Bunter hasn’t wound up as the name on a string of dry cleaning establishments. I suspect that would amuse Wodehouse.
Her detective novels are superbly fashioned, played out with great panache. She attached importance to the “fair play” rule: every clue should be as perceptible to the reader as to her detective. Undoubtedly, it is her eye for detail and knowledge of construction that caused her to be dubbed “the Mies van der Rohe of the detective story” by none other than Carolyn Heilbrun. Ms. Heilbrun, no slouch in the detective novel department with fourteen mysteries under the pen name Amanda Cross, wrote a delightful 1968 essay about Sayers in The American Scholar called “Sayers, Lord Peter and God.” In it she pronounces:
The scholarly habit of mind proved beautifully suited to the detective novel. As for Lord Peter, himself a scholar as well as a gentleman, he was from the beginning to show what God could have done with men if only He’d had the money.
Sayers’s sense of humor is pivotal to her plots and part of the pure pleasure of reading her. Consider that a distinguished neurologist introduced in Whose Body? is named Sir Julian Freke. Or that the delicious opening to Strong Poison (1930) contains the somber judge’s comments on how to make an omelet. In that same novel, we see that among Lord Peter’s accomplishments is setting up an entire establishment of female detectives, run by the hand-picked Miss Katharine Climpson. They are mainly little old ladies, invisible in society, which makes them priceless to Lord Peter. Moreover, it is a fact that Miss Climpson’s office boasted a private telephone line to Scotland Yard:
His lordship was somewhat reticent about this venture of his, but occasionally when closeted with his brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker, or other intimate friends, referred to it as “My Cattery.”
In assessing the Sayers canon, it is The Nine Tailors (1934), the ninth Wimsey novel, that causes the most controversy. No other mystery in the world has dealt with the art and craft of campanology—bell ringing to you and me—and woven it so completely into the plot. I admit to knowing I should admire this one more than I do. For one thing, the cause of death is original. I find it mainly of interest because Wimsey locates an emerald necklace stolen fifteen years earlier. Any resemblance to Jill Paton Walsh’s The Attenbury Emeralds is not, I think, purely coincidental.
My own personal favorite remains Strong Poison. I’m happy to report it’s also Jacques Barzun’s favorite (as he discloses in A Catalogue of Crime). In it we first meet the lady who is to become the love of Wimsey’s life, Harriet Vane, a detective novelist on trial for murder. Lord Peter is instantly smitten and proposes at once. No surprise that Vane, a strong, independent woman, greatly resembles her creator. Wimsey gets Vane cleared of the murder charges but he does not win her hand until five novels later, Gaudy Night (1935). The avid reader will notice that Lord Peter, true to the tradition of the Comedy of Manners, often brings more energy and erudition to his conversation than the situation requires. Here he is in Gaudy Night having got himself and his lady into a punt on the river at Oxford:
“Is it your pleasure to go up or down? [Lord Peter asks]”
“Well, going up there’s more riot but a better bottom; going down you’re all right as far as the fork, and then you choose between thick mud and the Corporation dump.”
“It appears to be altogether a choice of evils. But you have only to command. My ear is open like a greedy shark to catch the tunings of a voice divine.”
“Great heavens! Where did you find that?”
“That, though you might not believe it, is the crashing conclusion of a sonnet by Keats. True, it is a youthful effort; but there are some things that even youth does not excuse.”
“Let us go down-stream. I need solitude to recover from the shock.”
“Admirable woman! Would you now prefer to be independent and take the pole? I admit it is better fun to punt than to be punted, and that a desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.”
And so it is that in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), Lord Peter and his Harriet finally make it to the altar. The mystery is almost incidental. Bunter is there, along with the usual collection of eccentrics. But it is the language of love, often in French, between Lord Peter and his lady that is the centerpiece of the last Wimsey novel from Sayers’ hand. Then with Thrones, Dominations from 1998, Booker Prize nominee Jill Paton Walsh took up the torch to continue the saga of England’s most memorable aristocrat detective.
With A Presumption of Death (2003), the Sayers/Walsh collaboration continued. Inspired by some letters Dorothy Sayers wrote depicting Peter Wimsey during WWII, it is a neat interpretation of Sayers’ golden age characters.
Which brings me to The Attenbury Emeralds, wherein Walsh, fulfilling one reviewers’ prophecy, continues the series entirely on her own without any further Sayers material to draw on.
The year is 1951. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train is playing at the cinema. (Although, for purposes of this novel, To Catch a Thief—not yet a gleam in Hitchcock’s eye—is more applicable to the story.) Post-WWII England remains under rationing, and bombed out buildings are a blight on the land. Peter, grappling with his own demons from two wars, can’t let his troubles go:
“Six year’s after the war, and nothing rebuilt…. Our industries are smashed or bankrupt … we are in debt to the Americans to the tune of almost everything we own. We have liquidated all our foreign investments….”
“We won the war,” said Harriet. “We are safe. Peter … and we have each other, and enough coal for this nice fire we are sitting beside…before the war is never coming back, it has become the land of lost content, a story-land.”
And they are, despite those demons, settled comfortably. They have three boys, all bright and beautiful, blissfully unaware of even the one time that the Wimsey line faltered and Lord Mortimer, the Dowager Duchess recounts over tea, “thought he was a fish, and went and lived as a hermit on a mud flat.”
Harriet is writing and Lord Peter continues “a cat-like watch at the mouse-holes of the criminal world.” Bunter is married to the delectable Hope, a photographer, and they have a son who is the best friend of the eldest Wimsey. Throughout, Walsh uses Bunter and his insistently downstairs mentality to illustrate their brave new world:
Harriet said: “I really like to see what good friends those two are.”
“…Hope and I are very grateful, my lord, my lady,” said Bunter, “that our only son has had the companionship of your sons.”
“You know that we love him like one of our own,” said Harriet, full of daring.
“As long as it doesn’t give him ideas,” said Bunter gruffly.
“I hope it does,” said Peter. “I hope it does…. It’s a changing world now.”
The scene is witnessed by the thoroughly modern Hope, who while watching Lord Peter and Bunter ping-pong dialogue confides to Harriet, “They sound like a script by Noel Coward.”
And so they do, as Peter and Bunter recount to Harriet the tale of Peter’s first case in 1921, the missing emeralds of the title, a rich and exotic story. It comes back to haunt them when the current Lord Attenbury, in dire financial straits, again seeks Wimsey’s aid in tracking yet another elusive emerald.
This is a wonderfully old fashioned novel with intrigue galore. There is a chain of murders, Maharajahs mad as hatters, double-crossing Dukes, and a monumental family tragedy that takes Peter and Harriet to a very different place in 1952. With elegance and her own exquisite perceptions, Walsh shows how the characters have moved into a postwar and contemporary sensibility, cleverly extrapolating how Peter and Harriet would think and act. She’s done Dorothy L. Sayers proud.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.