This summer I’ve been reading Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey novels. I had read a few of them years ago when I was in college, but I hadn’t really read very many of them. So, I started with the Lord Peter-Harriet Vane novels — Strong Poison (1930), Have His Carcase (1932), and Gaudy Night (1935) — before going back to the beginning of the Lord Peter novels,Whose Body? (1923). In addition to those novels, I’ve read Clouds of Witness (1926), Unnatural Death (1927), and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928). I’ve just started Five Red Herrings (1931), but I have to admit that I’m losing steam and may have to take a break from Sayers for a bit.

Sayers is one of the great writers for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. She started her literary career as a poet before World War I. After the war, she decided to try her hand at detective fiction. In all, she wrote ten Wimsey novels and two collections of short stories. She also composed a play that takes place during Lord Peter’s honeymoon with Harriet. After she discontinued her detective series, she wrote religious plays, translated Dante, and composed several nonfiction works.

Having now read the majority of her novels, I have to say that Sayers is the greatest detective writer I’ve ever read. When I was younger, I spent a summer reading Agatha Christie’s works and I’ve always considered myself a Christie devotee. In graduate school, I took up reading Patricia Cornwell‘s novels, the first few of which, at least, are excellent, scary reads. And of course there’s Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories and novels are unrivaled in the genre — or at least they were until Sayers came along.

Sayers is a great writer of detective novels in part because she writes novels first and detective novels second. Unlike Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter grows and changes as the series of novels progress. Rich, smart, and eccentric, he’s appealing as a detective from the first. In addition to solving crimes, Peter plays the piano, collects rare books, and engages in playful banter with his man-servant, Bunter.

Sayers also experiments with the genre. The first two chapters of Strong Poison, for example, are told almost exclusively from the point of view of the judge presiding over Harriet’s murder trial. He simply relates to the jury the evidence in the case. This obviously serves the purpose of filling in the reader, but it also changes the usual perspective and gives the reader a realistic sense of Harriet’s legal jeopardy. Have His Carcase mostly follows Harriet’s actions rather than Peter’s, and Gaudy Night exclusively presents Harriet’s thoughts and actions. What’s more, Gaudy Night is as much a modernist or romance as it is a detective novel. Its discussions of love and marriage are as serious as anything in D.H. Lawrence or Edith Wharton.

I also love that Sayers is clearly steeped in eighteenth-century British literature. Harriet is reading Tristram Shandy when she falls asleep on the beach in Have His Carcase. (I still haven’t decided whether I think Sayers is commenting on the novel or on Harriet’s inability to read it without falling asleep, but either way I love the inclusion of it!) Other novels mention Pope and other eighteenth-century writers.

I’ve also been watching the 1987 t.v. adaptations of the Lord Peter-Harriet Vane novels. Here’s a clip I found on YouTube from Strong Poison. In this novel, Harriet has been arrested for poisoning her lover, but Lord Peter believes she is innocent and vows to clear her name. In this scene, he interviews Harriet in jail for the first time.

Edward Petherbridge is excellent as Lord Peter in this series. He gets Lord Peter’s mannerisms and eccentricities just right. He’s also the perfect embodiment of Lord Peter. But the series really belongs to Harriet Walter in my opinion. Walter is amazing as Harriet. Strong, independent, yet caring and vulnerable, her Harriet is a perfect realization of everything readers love about Sayers’ character. Both of these actors are perfect for their roles.

In general, the adaptations are also good. Strong Poison and Have His Carcase are both top notch. The writers have retained all of the important parts of the novels and balance the relationship parts with the detective bits. Gaudy Night, however, is a big disappointment. Gaudy Night is my favorite of the novels (so far, at least), but this adaptation cuts out all of the best parts of the book — the conversations between Harriet and Lord Peter that lead her finally to accept his love and marriage proposal. In the novel, this acceptance is slow and hard won by Lord Peter as he explains and indeed proves his opinions about love, gender, sex, and marriage to Harriet. We see her slowly open up to him and accept him. The television adaptation cuts all of this, even when they retain scenes from the novel whose primary purpose to illustrate Harriet’s change.

Overall, I enjoyed the first two adaptations but was disappointed by the third. I’ve also enjoyed the novels, though I’m getting a little bored the novels between the Harriet Vane ones. It’s difficult to read Five Red Herrings after Strong Poison and when you know Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night are to come. It pails in comparison to these other works. But I’ll probably take it and Murder Must Advertise with me on my next road trip.

Eventually I want to read Sayers’ non-Wimsey works. I’ve decided to teach my Major English Authors class this winter quarter on Sayers. I haven’t quite decided the reading list yet, but it will definitely include the three Harriet Vane novels. I think it will be a fun class.

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