Allow me to introduce Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey

As I’m working my way through Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books (to date from the first book, Whose Body?, through Lord Peter Views the Body), I thought I’d take a moment to give some background on him. Because they don’t make detectives like Wimsey any more.
The Golden Age of detective stories (generally considered the time between the two World Wars) was an age when British writers dominated and so did amateur detectives (Sherlock Holmes is often identified as the founder of the school, even though he was a professional PI). Cops were considered rather tacky and blue-collar and “amateur” in those days referred to doing something for love, not money—and was therefore assumed to be on a higher plane (EW Hornung’s 19th-century master thief, Raffles, is always referred to as an amateur even though he’s stealing to support himself). Murders frequently took place among the upper classes, often at country-house weekend parties (which I satirized in The Wodehouse Murder Case).
Many of these works vanished into obscurity; when Agatha Christie wrote about her Partners in Crime parody stories, she could barely remember some of the originals she’d been mocking. Wimsey survived.
As we learn over the course of the series, Lord Peter’s family are the Dukes of Denver, one of England’s wealthiest aristocratic families (at the time, a lot of aristocrats were going into commerce to make ends meet but the stereotype remained) though it’s his brother who has the title. A World War I veteran with some degree of shell-shock, he’d adopted his rather inane manner as a coping mechanism in the wake of the war. According to a biographical sketch by Sayers, his saving grace was when he wound up solving his first criminal case: Suddenly he had a focus for his first-rate mind and a way to make a difference in the world. He’s assisted in his work by Bunter, his aide (or “batman”) during the war and now his valet. Bunter has a keen mind of his own, a good deal of charm and a skill with photography which comes in handy (this is back when cameras and chemical film developing were a lot more demanding than they are now).
Surprisingly, Sayers isn’t terribly snobby about Peter’s aristocratic lineage (although as an Englishman of 55, I may just not register the snobbery), but she does present him in a very elitist way. Peter’s taste is superb: He collects rare books, wears the best tailored suits, and enjoys the best food—all of which he has the taste and discernment to appreciate. In one of the short stories, Peter’s triumph hinges on the fact his palate can identify any wine. A later novel compares his refined appreciation for music with the boors who only fake it. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Peter speaks disparagingly of someone who was turned down for the club because he smoked a strong cigar before sampling a superb port (thereby making it impossible to taste the wine properly).
The Golden Age had many flaws. As Raymond Chandler grumbled in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” the elaborately constructed plots often required people to act in batshit ways. And the aristocratic settings were light-years removed from reality or from the brutality and pain that murder brings. Nevertheless, Chandler’s hardboiled school of writing didn’t consign the Golden Age style to the trash heap. The best stories survived, and they have amateur detectives following in their wake today in countless stories.
Peter Wimsey isn’t for everyone. But then, he doesn’t try to be.


Filed under Reading

11 responses to “Allow me to introduce Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey

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