Being on a renewed Agatha Christie kick lately, I thought I’d switch things up a bit and read my first ever Dorothy Sayers, one of the other queens of the Golden Age of Detective fiction. I’d heard about the Lord Peter Wimsey series and thought it sounded right up my alley. I hate to say it, but this novel proved to be quite a slog.
The mystery itself is promising: A dead body, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez glasses, is discovered in the bathtub of a mild-mannered architect by the name of Alfred Thipps. The local (incompetent) police inspector, Inspector Sugg, suspects Thipps of murdering the man himself. Fortunately for Thipps, he’s acquainted with Lord Peter Wimsey, a gentleman sleuth whose other interests include collecting rare books. Having been on his way to an auction, Lord Peter decides to send his servant Bunter to the sale in his place so he can purse the mystery. “[A] strange corpse doesn’t turn up in a suburban bathroom more than once in a lifetime–at least, I should think not–at any rate, the number of times it’s happened with pince-nez, might be counted on the fingers of one hand, I imagine. Dear me! It’s a dreadful mistake to ride two hobbies at once.”
Why, I already have my detecting monocle in. To Scotland Yard, what what!
In an odd coincidence, the night before the body appeared, a famous financier named Sir Reuben Levy disappeared from his home and has not been seen since. The obvious conclusion is that the body in the tub must be Sir Reuben, right? Not so fast. While the body does possess some of the same physical characteristics as the financier, it turns out not to be him. The identity of the nearly-naked victim remains a mystery.
As I said, a good setup! A missing financier, a mysterious body, the dark humor of the pince-nez, and an aristocratic sleuth poking about with a walking stick and a monocle: What’s not to love? I mean, Lord Peter’s mother is a bit of an anti-Semite (in case you hadn’t picked up on the fact that wealthy financier Reuben Levy was Jewish). The poor Duchess does believe there are some good Jews, and, as she says, “I’d much rather they believed in something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast.”
And the phrase, “Some, I assume are good people” echoed down the generations. . .
But I’m not one to hold the attitudes of the time period in which the book was written against it, and surely many a dowager has had similar perspectives, so I’ll let that slide. The problem was I wanted this book to be wittier, as if Oscar Wilde were solving crimes. Lord Peter has a few good lines, such as when his friend Inspector Parker tells him not to jump to conclusions: “Jump? You couldn’t even crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion. I believe if you caught the cat with her head in the cream-jug you’d say it was conceivable that the jug was empty when she got there.”
Overall, though, the unfolding of the solution becomes a bore. Sayers makes a number of references to “if this were a detective romance” or “in Sherlock Holmes stories,” in a flirtation with meta-fiction, yet she commits, in my opinion, some of the worst sins of mystery writers, such as having Bunter record in excruciating, line-by-line detail, what had to be a 20-minute conversation. When the solution to the mystery is finally revealed, it’s expressed in the form of a written confession, which robs all the drama from the reveal.
In the end, the execution of this novel was a waste of a good mystery. Perhaps my mistake was in starting from the very beginning of the series? Maybe Lord Peter becomes more interesting when Harriet Vane enters the picture? I might jump to her first appearance to see whether that helps matters. I also need to remember that Christie had her share of stinkers, too, and give Sayers another chance. Who knows what else may appear in a bathtub.