Book review: Lord Peter Views the Body

Earlier this week, I finished this anthology of Peter Wimsey short stories, published in 1928. (I’m slowly making my way through the Wimsey books, depending on my library’s availability, though eventually I’ll cave and get an Audible account and figure out how to update my car stereo to play downloaded files on my phone.)

I haven’t been a great mystery reader in my life, but I adore Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey — the latter for the historical fiction and period detail. I may also be particularly besotted with Wimsey/Bunter, especially when you throw in PTSD hurt/comfort.  I need to write that fic.

AHEM. So it was an interesting experience, diving into these short story mysteries. It’s been too long since I’ve read short stories — there’s certainly a unique art to them that’s enviable. I’ve always been prone to long stories, and I need to polish my short-story writing.

These stories are very much of their era, in a way that can’t be captured by someone today striving to capture the tone of the period. I’m referring to everything uncomfortable about the early 20th century — the racism, classism (particularly in Britain), anti-Semitism, and sexism — which of course modern writers can skillfully weave in, but there’s still nothing quite like the casual allusions that aren’t repudiated by the characters or narrator.

I have no reason to think Dorothy Sayers shared her characters’ uglier views — I assume she was just exceedingly accurate in depicting the people of her time. (Though I won’t forgive the ugly portrayal of lesbians in Unnatural Death.) Nevertheless, it’s jarring to get to the end of the story and hear a character apologize for the villain: “He’s really not so bad, it’s just that he has an awful wife.” Allrighty then!

And it’s so unlikely to hear a Jewish person call attention to themselves like this today, when discussing different habits of engagement/marriage: “That is the way with Christians. You are so casual about it.”

(This book was also written pre-Holocaust, which is a disquieting thought.)

But the skeeviest moment in the series was probably equally skeevy back when it was first published. In ““The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face” (yes, they all have wonderful titles; my favorite is “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention”), Wimsey lets the murderer go free as the buffoonish police pin the crime on a foreigner (so much historically accurate xenophobia in this anthology) who conveniently committed suicide shortly after the crime was committed.

Wimsey’s reasons for letting the murderer go boil down to these two reasons:

  1. The victim had a mean face
  2. The murderer was an exceptionally talented painter.

Seriously. What’s more, the victim was guilty of nothing more than his mean face and secondhand stories about him being a bully who took advantage of his authority over others.  No one even suggested the victim had committed a crime in his bullying.

Apart from those discomforting moments — the mysteries themselves were fairly decent or interesting. The first one — “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers” — was the most effective, especially with the touch of horror. Seriously creepy story.  

“The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker” was another odder story, one you’re not likely to see in modern-day mysteries (though as I recall, Sherlock Holmes never had one quite like it, either). Here, the supplicant for Wimsey’s services was not entirely innocent herself (she’s a married woman, seeking to prevent the scandal of an affair becoming known), though it is made clear she has a kind of honor; and Wimsey’s method of removing the piece of blackmail was not entirely clean, either. 

I do feel a little cheated, because my audiobook didn’t include three stories mentioned on the Wiki page: “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question,” “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will,” and “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head.” I’ll have to track those down.

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