Friday, December 17, 2010

Wimsey

I spent just about every evening for the last ten days or so watching the DVDs of the The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries and thoroughly enjoying the experience. I remember watching them in the early '70s when they first appeared on American TV.  I had by then already read the Dorothy L. Sayers novels on which they were based. A Google search for that series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter turned up this NPR review. The reasons they appealed to John Powers are very like the reasons they appeal to me.
.... Back in the early 1970s, the BBC turned Sayers' crime novels into a series of TV shows starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. When they were shown here on Masterpiece Theatre, they became such a huge hit that they led PBS to create the series Mystery! which has run for the past 30 years. ....

The first installment, Clouds of Witness, is typical. It begins at the Wimsey family's shooting lodge in Yorkshire. The fiance of Lord Peter's sister, Mary, has been found shot dead in the night, and the police accuse Lord Peter's grumpy brother, Gerald, who refuses to say what he was up to at the time of the crime. Things look bad until Lord Peter comes back from the Continent with his trusty manservant, Bunter, slyly played by Glyn Houston. He begins examining the case and questioning potential suspects, all of whom seem to have secrets galore. ....

When I first popped Clouds of Witness into my DVD player, I wondered if it was still enjoyable. After all, the Beeb's production values weren't the greatest back then. But the series sucks you into its 1920s setting with a brand of leisurely storytelling you no longer see on TV, and it's carried by Carmichael's Lord Peter. Although a bit too old and fleshy for the part, this canny actor knows exactly how to play Wimsey, a man who can seem as silly as Bertie Wooster but is actually as shrewd as Jeeves.

Of course such a character is the purest confection, which is why such cozy English detective stories are mocked by literary critics and fans of the hard-boiled crime novel. ....

The fact is, lack of realism isn't the failing of old-fashioned crime stories; it's their point. The true pleasure of the Lord Peter mysteries isn't simply that they let us sink into a romanticized '20s England. It's that they take us outside the chaotic swirl of modern society, where murder is a symptom of intractable disorder. They carry us to a fantasyland so intrinsically sedate and orderly, so conservative, that murder is an aberration. .... [T]he Lord Peter stories satisfy something in the human psyche that neither bullying nor education can erase. They offer us a fantasy of perfect closure, a world where even bloody murder is little more than a brainteaser that can, and will, be solved.
There was a later Mystery series of three more of Sayers's Lord Peter books starring Edward Petherbridge in the role: Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries (The Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane Collection - Strong Poison/Have His Carcass/Gaudy Night). They were produced in the late '80s; the production values are much higher and they are very good, but I still prefer the Carmichael series.

DVD Review - 'Lord Peter' Returns, And It's No Mystery Why : NPR