Lord Peter Wimsey: Complexity writ with Sayers’ light and brilliant touch

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An antique typewriter is pictured in a file photo. (OSV News photo/Desmond Boylan, Reuters)

(OSV News) A book review in the May 27, 1923, edition of The New York Times opined, “there seems to be no reason why … Lord Peter should not become one of the best-known and best-liked among the many amateur detectives of fiction.” Thus did the prescient reviewer introduce an American audience to Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, the aristocratic sleuth of Dorothy L. Sayers debut novel, “Whose Body?” This was the first of 11 novels and five short-story collections establishing Sayers’ status as one of the great mystery writers of the 20th century.

The Lord Peter novels and stories are characterized by the cunning cleverness of the crimes, often associated with some profession or specialization of the antagonist criminal. The genius of the criminals is matched, of course, by the ingenuity, observational prowess and deductive reasoning skills of Lord Peter. Never working alone, His Lordship is assisted in the early stories by his faithful valet, Mervyn Bunter, and later by Harriet Vane (whose place in the novels and stories I won’t spoil if you haven’t read them). Lord Peter’s investigations also are supported by his good friend at Scotland Yard, detective Charles Parker.

In some ways, Lord Peter is similar to another beloved character from British fiction, P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, along with his man, Jeeves. (Indeed, Lord Peter and Bunter sometimes poke good-hearted fun at their fictional counterparts.) Both Bertie and Lord Peter are wealthy beyond measure, educated at Eton and Oxford, heavily dependent upon their respective valets, and witty bons vivants, enjoying all the extravagant privileges of early 20th-century British aristocracy. And, of course, both constantly find themselves in the midst of mysteries and conundrums which always find a happy resolution.

But Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey are noteworthy for their significant differences. Much as I adore Wodehouse’s stories, Sayers takes the reader deeper into the human soul than Wodehouse. Lord Peter is a more complex, introspective, troubled and, thus, a more human character than Bertie. Among the distinctions are the relationships between the two characters and their valets. Wooster engages Jeeves through an agency. The beginning of their association is strictly commercial. While their relationship develops beyond employer/employee, Jeeves never advances far beyond his utility in getting Bertie and his assortment of aunts, uncles and school chums out of improbable (but always amusing) scrapes. Additionally, almost all of Wooster’s conundrums are solved by Jeeves — despite Bertie’s ineptitude — not in cooperation with his aptitude. And despite Bertie’s high praise of Jeeves, there’s a recurring tension between the two that sustains a certain detachment between them.

This is in sharp, perhaps deliberate, contrast to the relationship between Lord Peter and Bunter. From the first novel, we learn that then-Sgt. Bunter was then-Maj.Wimsey’s batman in World War I. “Whose Body?” reveals that Lord Peter suffered significant physical and psychological trauma in the Great War, for which Bunter was a source of solace and comfort. In later novels, we learn that Sgt. Bunter rescued Maj. Wimsey from a trench that had collapsed from shelling, and that Bunter was instrumental in Lord Peter’s long recovery from what was then called “shell shock” after the war.

While Bunter is Lord Peter’s valet, they enjoy a much more personal relationship than that between Wooster and Jeeves. When he is especially pleased with Jeeves, Bertie allows his servant to discard a gaudy tie or inappropriate waistcoat, of which Jeeves disapproves. In similar situations, Lord Peter asks Bunter to sit with him and enjoy an expensive vintage port and cigar. Bunter offers succor to Wimsey when he has traumatic flashbacks to the war, putting Lord Peter to bed and covering for him to the outside world. And Wimsey treats Bunter more as a companion than employee, more a comrade than a servant, more a friend than a domestic retainer. Bunter’s humane care of Lord Peter reveals the human side of Lord Peter, which in turn enriches the lives of Sayers’ readers, when we see ourselves in both characters.

Beginning in the late 1930s, Sayers enjoyed a second career as an expressly Christian writer: an author of Christian apologetics (“The Mind of the Maker”), a playwright (“The Man Born to Be King”) and a translator of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” In “The Mind of the Maker,” Sayers explained that the work of the artist is roughly analogous to the missions of the Divine Trinity. Good art involves the idea in the mind of the creator, the instantiation of the art in the world, and the interaction with the art by the reader, listener or observer. Long before she explained the theory, Sayers implemented it in her fiction. Happy centenary to Lord Peter Wimsey, and abiding gratitude to the mind of his maker.

Kenneth Craycraft is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).