Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I've Been Reading

Still don't have a review of "The Aztecs" done -- I've been being lazy on that one. Plus I've started a new knitting project which has a definite time deadline and I need to meet that deadline.

Anyway, when I've not been knitting I've been taking a little break from the Nero Wolfe books in order to explore another mystery series.... Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books.

It's actually kind of an eerie coincidence because someone mentioned having read one of the books in an online discussion a bunch of us were participating in about good mystery books series. Shortly after that discussion I was bopping around the BBC Radio 7 website* and found a full-cast dramatization of Sayers' Strong Poison and started listening to it. Both of these things spurred me to go back to Wimsey.

Yes, I said go back to Wimsey. In another odd little coincidence just as with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe I had tried to get into Sayers' Peter Wimsey books back in my college days. Unlike with the Wolfe oeuvre, however, I clearly remember when I first tried to cut my teeth on Sayers' writing. I can clearly remember seeking her work out in my college library (it was housed on the top floor of the building which was a lovely place to read because there were a lot of tables and chairs near the windows so one could have a sweeping panorama of either the campus or the town depending on which side of the building you chose to sit on. But I digress...). As with Stout, however, I just couldn't get into it. Wimsey left me cold as I found Sayers' depiction of his drawl-y way of talking annoying and I thought him rather overly flippant to boot.

But I chose to go back and take another look at the books -- again, something that I rarely do -- and this time found that time and age and experience had weathered me to see a little more deeply. For their time period, Sayers' stories have a bite to them that is surprising.

For one thing, the Wimsey stories usually get classified as "Cozy Mysteries". A cozy mystery usually involves a murder which is often (but not exclusively) not described in gory detail so that it seems rather bloodless. For example, the victim may be shot at his desk and the description is just that -- that the victim is found shot and slumped over his desk. There is no description of the size of the bullet hole and no discussion of the wound bleeding out, etc. The suspects are a closed group -- a limited number who were either present at a secluded location or who would have had access to the murder victim. The victim and the pool of suspects are also often (but not exclusively) people who are of the upper crust (in the British tradition) and/or wealthy or famous in some way. In other words, the sort of people one wouldn't suspect of committing crimes or people who have honor or prestige to lose if they are suspected of murder.

Agatha Christie's stories are some of the most prominent of the cozy genre but there were others such as Margery Allingham with her early Albert Campion stories and Ngaio Marsh with her Roderick Alleyn mysteries. And Sayers is usually included in the bunch.

Sayers' work, however, distinctly breaks from the cozy tradition in several ways. For one thing, Sayers is not afraid to throw a little blood and a little suffering into the deaths of her murder victims. In fact, the description of the death of the murder victim in Clouds of Witnesses makes a point of the amount of blood involved.

For another thing, in a cozy mystery things such as extramarital affairs are usually handled discretely but with a slight overtone of shame -- usually towards the man who is stepping out on his wife. Sayers, however, doesn't care. Again in Clouds of Witnesses Wimsey's brother is found out in an affair but Wimsey's feelings on it are rather matter-of-fact. He acknowledges that it is a blow to his sister-in-law but at the same time he understands why his brother did it, respects his brother for trying to be a gentleman about it, and feels sorry for all those involved. Later on in the series Wimsey falls for a woman who had lived openly with a man without benefit of marriage -- something scandalous in Wimsey's aristocratic circles but something that doesn't bother Wimsey at all.

Sayers also tackles some more serious subjects. Also in Clouds of Witnesses one character suffers physical and emotional abuse from her husband. Sayers doesn't flinch from the depiction -- showing it in all it's horror and also condemning it. Then there is Wimsey himself. A veteran of World War I Wimsey suffers from "shell shock" -- or as we would call it today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sayers' depiction of one of Wimsey's flashbacks is heart-wrenching but also reads as very true-to-life. Unlike many of the other stoic heroes, Wimsey's war experiences have left scars on his psyche.

Wimsey is also not the traditional detective in other ways. The cozy mystery usually (but again not exclusively) features a non-professional detective -- someone not a part of the police force but usually friendly with officers of the law. Wimsey is the same in that regard but in most cozy mysteries the detective hero solves the mystery and never looks back. Wimsey actually ponders his part in things. He worries that he treats solving mysteries like a game and is not prepared for the consequences. He often shows remorse when his actions lead to the real killer being caught and convicted but knowing that his actions have condemned someone to death on the gallows (since at the time Sayers was writing England still had the death penalty. They have since abolished it).

The Lord Peter Wimsey stories are not, however, for the easily annoyed. Sayers herself was quite the scholar and sometimes her own scholarship sneaks into the books which make them seem a bit pedantic. Wimsey, as a character, can be rather an obnoxious idiot from time to time (although in a way that is part of his charm and what helps humanize him) and sometimes the plots drag on a bit too long.

If one is interested, though, in some mysteries which are a bit outside the ordinary for their time period and a detective hero with some fascinating flaws then Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey stories are well worth a look.

Oops, forgot to add....

* The BBC not only operates TV stations in Great Britain but radio stations also. The BBC radio stations tend to be divided by type with some stations devoted only to news, some to different types of music, etc. BBC Radio 7 is the station that is devoted to audio dramas. One of the great things about BBC Radio is that, unlike the TV programs, many of their radio programs are available to listen to online internationally. You can check out BBC Radio 7 HERE

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