What woman wouldn't want to spend her holidays with a witty and charming aristocrat?
Over the yule tide season, this reviewer had the good fortune to pass her free time with Dorothy Sayers' sophisticated sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey in a quartet of stories from the Golden Age of Mystery reprinted by HarperCollins' Bourbon Books.
In the first book, "Whose Body?" (198 pages), Lord Peter (not Lord Wimsey, as he is the second son and not the Duke of Denver) is asked by his mother, the Dowager Duchess, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the appearance of a corpse clad in nothing but a pince-nez and deposited in the bathtub of the unfortunate Mr. Thipps, an acquaintance of the Duchess.
In this story, the reader is introduced to Lord Peter, who underneath his "man about town" whimsical exterior, bears a psyche still traumatized by the horrors of the First World War.
In this intricate tale of murder, Wimsey matches wits with a fiend as intelligent and diabolical as the notorious Dr. Crippen.
In his second case, "Clouds of Witness," (285 pages) Lord Peter returns home - actually, to his family's hunting estate, Riddlesdale Lodge - where the body of Capt. Cathcart was discovered shot to death.
As the victim, Cathcart, had been engaged to Wimsey's sister and the oldest Wimsey, Gerald, the Duke of Denver, was known to have argued with him just prior to his death (having accused the Captain of being a card cheat) suspicion of murder falls on the sixteenth Duke of Denver.
While uncovering the truth surrounding Captain Cathcart's death, Lord Peter uncovers a number of indiscretions involving family members which he treats with great compassion.
In this classic manor home mystery, Sayers treats her readers to the interesting details concerning the pomp and ceremony surrounding a trial of a British Lord.
The third story, "Unnatural Death," (281 pages) begins as Lord Peter is talking shop with his friend, a detective from Scotland Yard, Charles Parker. Their conversation is overheard by a doctor who confesses his suspicion that an elderly patient of his died prematurely and most unnaturally.
In addition to Mr. Parker and Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey's loyal valet, who has a special talent at getting housemaids to reveal their employers' secrets, Lord Peter has a third notable assistant in his work as a private sleuth. She is a spinster who proves to be invaluable in his investigations and in doing so, shows Wimsey to be a man ahead of his time.
With his marvelous wit, Wimsey denounces the prohibitions placed on women working in this proposition to the Scotland Yard detective:
"Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our
stupid social system into posts as companions where their magnificent
gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves
or even become harmful to the community, while rate-payers' money is spent on
getting work for which these women are providentially fitted, inefficiently
carried out by ill-equipped policemen like you."
Wimsey employs Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson, his "kept" woman as he jokingly calls her. She serves as his eyes and ears on many cases.
By virtue of her status as an old maid, she is able to pose probing questions, often in the form of idle chatter, which he could not ask without raising suspicion. Fans of Agatha Christie's venerable spinster sleuth, Jane Marple, will find a kindred spirit in Miss Climpson.
In the fourth story, "The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club," (263 pages) Wimsey investigates the passing of old General Fentiman, who is found dead, seated in his chair at the venerable gentlemen's club, the Bellona, on Armistice Day.
What appears to be a matter of discovering which of two elderly siblings, General Fentiman or his sister Lady Dormer, died first for purposes of determining inheritance, turns into a murder investigation and the unpleasantness at the Bellona Club repeats itself in a most shocking ending.
The gallantry of Lord Peter towards Miss Dorland, a modern woman who is very much a suspect in this case, foreshadows his fateful encounter with another woman upon whom suspicion of murder would rest - the mystery writer, Harriet Vane, who would become his wife. Their extraordinary courtship is carried out in a trilogy of stories - "Strong Poison," "Have His Carcase" and "Gaudy Night."
As the winter chill deepens, mystery readers may wish to put a log on the fire, brew a nice pot of tea and spend a few pleasant hours with Dorothy Sayers' debonair detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.