Monday, November 26, 2012

Lord Peter

Dorothy L. Sayers was not only a notable 20th century Christian apologist, she was also one of the most read English mystery writers of the "Golden Age" — perhaps only less popular than Agatha Christie. As did other mystery writers of that era, Sayers pretty much followed Ronald Knox's "Ten Commandments" of fair play for the mystery reader:
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
I first discovered the Sayers who wrote mysteries — only later the orthodox Christian apologist and playwright and friend of many of the Inklings. The mysteries featured the aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, always assisted by his batman/manservant Bunter. The books are the kind you settle down in — best read, perhaps, on a long winter evening. Sometimes her variety of mystery has been called "cozy" in contrast to the more typically American "hard-boiled" thrillers. But this description from Have His Carcase is about as "hard-boiled" as it gets. At the beginning of the book, detective novelist Harriet Vane discovers a body:
.... Perhaps he's in a fit or a faint," she said to herself. " Or he's got sunstroke. That's quite likely. It's very hot." She looked up, blinking, at the brazen sky, then stooped and laid one hand on the surface of the rock. It almost burnt her. She shouted again, and then, bending over the man, seized his shoulder.
"Are you all right?
The man said nothing and she pulled upon the shoulder. It shifted slightly—a dead weight. She bent over and gently lifted the man's head.
Harriet's luck was in.
It was a corpse. Not the sort of corpse there could be any doubt about, either. Mr. Samuel Weare of Lyons Inn, whose "throat they cut from ear to ear," could not have been more indubitably a corpse. Indeed, if the head did not come off in Harriet's hands, it was only because the spine was intact, for the larynx and all the great vessels of the neck had been severed "to the hause-bone," and a frightful stream, bright red and glistening, was running over the surface of the rock and dripping into a little hollow below.
Harriet put the head down again and felt suddenly sick. She had written often enough about this kind of corpse, but meeting the thing in the flesh was quite different. She had not realised how butcherly the severed vessels would look, and she had not reckoned with the horrid halitus of blood, which steamed to her nostrils under the blazing sun. Her hands were red and wet. She looked down at her dress. That had escaped, thank goodness. Mechanically, she stepped down again from the rock and went round to the edge of the sea. There she washed her fingers over and over again, drying them with ridiculous care upon her handkerchief. She did not like the look of the red trickle that dripped down the face of the rock into the clear water. Retreating, she sat down rather hastily on some loose boulders.
"A dead body," said Harriet, aloud to the sun and the sea-gulls. "A dead body. How—how appropriate!" She laughed.
The great thing," Harriet found herself saying, after a pause," the great thing is to keep cool. Keep your head, my girl. What would Lord Peter Wimsey do in such a case? Or, of course, Robert Templeton?
Robert Templeton was the hero who diligently detected between the covers of her own books. ....
(Have His Carcase is the first of three Lord Peter mysteries in which Harriet Vane features prominently.)
Amazon Kindle is offering the Lord Peter Wimsey books, each at a price far below that of its physical version: Dorothy L. Sayers: Kindle Store Dorothy L. Sayers: Kindle Store

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