|Dorothy L. Sayers: The Lord Peter Wimsey Stories|
A Chronology of Lord Peter Wimsey StoriesI created this page because back when I started reading the Peter Wimsey stories - around 1999 - I wanted to know what order to read them in. To my surprise, no one had assembled such a page on the Web. So I decided to give it a shot myself. The goal of this chronology is to provide a guide for the order in which the stories should be read, and therefore I've avoided giving spoilers in this chronology.
(I've also been doing the same for Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series.)
Stories in italics are novels, while those in "quotes" are short stories. All the short stories can be found in the volume Lord Peter. The short stories rarely give a clue as to when they occur, so I've kept them in the order in which they appear in that volume unless the story gives me reason to place it elsewhere.
Whose Body?Harper, PB, © 1923, 212 pp, ISBN #0-06-104357-5
Reviewed February 2000
What It's About: Mr. Alfred Thipps one day finds a dead body in his bathtub. He's never seen the body before, and has no idea who it is, or how it got there. Wimsey inserts himself into the investigation - to the consternation of Inspector Sugg, who doesn't much like him. It turns out that a visible financier has disappeared around this time, and the police figure that the body must him (although they're unable to prove it), and that Thipps must somehow be behind it (despite being a mouse of a man with no known connection to the financier). This, of course, would be too easy, and Wimsey goes about determining who's behind it.
What I Thought of It: The mystery in this novel is reasonable enough, but it's a shorter book than any other in the series, so the mystery is slighter. None of the series' recurring characters are present other than Wimsey, Bunter, and Inspector Parker, and Wimsey's speech patterns are considerably more casual, dropping the 'g' from 'ing' sounds, so he says interestin', makin', lettin' 'em, really most awfully sorry, and so forth. (In later books he speaks in more measured, formal tones.)
It's an interesting introduction to Wimsey's world, but is a slight volume and not very polished.
Clouds of WitnessHarper, PB, © 1927, 279 pp, ISBN #0-06-104353-2
Reviewed April 2000
What It's About: Following the events of Whose Body?, Peter and Bunter go on a vacation, but return when Peter learns that his brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering their sister Mary's fiance. The Duke was entertaining a variety of guests at the family home that night and the fiance was shot in the dead of night, and Gerald was found examining by Mary the body. Gerald refuses to discuss the matter in much depth, and clearly most involved parties have something to hide. Peter approaches the mystery from both the physical evidence and the characters and backgrounds.
What I Thought of It: A fine book which provides perhaps the most broad-ranging view of Peter's background and life, especially regarding his family and Inspector Parker. A terrific balance between the mystery and the characters, I was even pleased to find myself a few steps ahead of Peter at a couple of points, though not all the way through. Unfortunately the book is marred by a somewhat disappointing solution to the mystery, but overall it's quite enjoyable.
This is a good first book to read in the Wimsey series, if you're new to it.
Unnatural DeathHarper, PB, © 1927, 264 pp, ISBN #0-06-104358-3
Reviewed April 2000
What It's About: Peter and Parker meet a young doctor at dinner, and he tells them of an elderly woman he cared for three years earlier who mysteriously died while under his care. He raised suspicions of murder, but could not prove anything, which combined with the woman's age damaged his reputation in the eyes of many. Peter smells something fishy and decides to investigate, sending his friend Miss Climpson - a spinster who does covert investigating on Peter's behalf - to the town in question to find some facts about the woman, her nurse, and the murder of one of the housekeepers who had worked there at the time.
What I Thought of It: Not so much a "whodunnit" as a "was anything 'dun' at all?", this novel is notable for introducing Miss Climpson and her chatty manner of befriending people who might know something about the goings-on that Peter is investigating. Peter builds a case on the thinnest evidence and manages to flesh it out, with a nifty manhunt at the very end. It's a fun romp, but overall rather inconsequential.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona ClubHarper, PB, © 1928, 243 pp, ISBN #0-06-104354-0
Reviewed April 2000
What It's About: The aged General Fentiman is found dead one morning at the Bellona Club, an exclusive group to which Peter belongs. As he was ninety years old, no one wonders much about it until it turns out that one Lady Dormer died within a day of the General, and her considerably fortune would pass on to him (or rather, his heirs) if he was living at the time of her death, else it would be passed to a young woman named Miss Dorland. So the exact hour of the General's death turns out to be significant. Peter is enlisted to investigate exactly how long he had been dead, and finds that not everything about the body is as it at first seemed, and that a variety of people had motives for rigging the circumstances of the General's death.
What I Thought of It: With its Bridge-themed chapter titles, this is quite an entertaining book, expanding Peter's world to his friends and acquaintances at the Bellona Club. (The reader can also be amused by the fact of a woman - Sayers - writing about an exclusive men-only British club.) The General's sons, Robert and George, are friends of Peter's and are obvious suspects, as is Miss Dorland, and Sayers does a fine job of playing up the muddiness involving the behaviors of these three. The book is just about the right length, and although the mystery itself is not as meaty as in Clouds of Witness, the resolution is ultimately more satisfying.
Lord PeterHarper, PB, 481 pp, ISBN #0-06-104361-3
Reviewed December 2000
What It's About: Lord Peter includes every short story Sayers published starring Lord Peter Wimsey. Included is "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers", with a flashback to Wimsey's earliest recorded adventure, "The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba", which bridges the 1920s and the 1930s Wimsey tales, and two stories which occur after the last novel, Busman's Honeymoon, one of which features their eldest son Bredon prominently.
What I Thought of It: For all the fun Sayers pokes at Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, this collection makes it clear that she was still influenced by the Great Detective's adventures, as many stories herein turn on clever little tricks of timing or ingenious gimmicks to pull off a caper. Sometimes Sayers plays fair, and other times she doesn't, relying on some trick which a reader probably neither knows nor cares about. The pivotal story here is "Ali Baba", which fills in an interesting gap in the middle of Wimsey's career and should be read just before Strong Poison. "Talboys" is also notable as it gives us a look at what sort of a father Peter turns out to be (much the same as the kind of uncle he is portrayed as in "The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head"). Otherwise, the stories are mostly not terribly notable, though a nice way to pass the time, although "The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey" is a departure in that it ranges a bit into the territory of the horror yarn.
Strong PoisonHarper, PB, © 1930, 261 pp, ISBN #0-06-104350-8
Reviewed April 2000
What It's About: Lord Peter attends the trial of Harriet Vane, a young mystery writer accused of poisoning her former lover, Philip Boyes. Peter's friend Miss Climpson is on the jury, and has doubts of her guilt, so the jury is hung and Harriet will be re-tried. Peter, too has his doubts, and also finds himself falling in love with Harriet after interviewing her, so he sets out to clear her. Peter interviews Boyes' father, as well as Norman Urquhart, the solicitor whom Boyes had last dined with (he even installs an employee of Miss Climpson undercover at his firm), and meets some of the people in the artists' circles which Boyes hung around with. And yet, with Urquhart cleared and circumstantial evidence pointing to Harriet, things seem bleak.
What I Thought of It: This novel exists primarily to introduce Harriet Vane as Peter's true love interest. It's no surprise that she is, in fact, innocent, as she plays a key role in later books. The mystery itself, however, is rather drab, having points in common with Bellona Club and Unnatural Death. Vane doesn't appear much in the story, and the characters take a back seat to the plot, which makes it less lively than usual. Overall it's not one of the stronger entries in the series.
The Five Red HerringsHarper, PB, © 1931, 354 pp, ISBN #0-06-104363-X
Reviewed August 2000
What It's About: Peter Wimsey is vacationing in Galloway in Scotland, a favorite location of many painters. The morning after a row between the feisty Campbell and Wimsey's English friend Waters, Campbell turns up dead in the water at the bottom of a cliff, and besides Waters there are five others in the area who hated Campbell's guts and might have killed him. The event was clearly dressed up to appear to be a suicide, and someone impersonated Campbell from afar to make it appear he died at a time other than when he did. Wimsey investigates all the suspects and the evidence to unearth the murderer.
What I Thought of It: The least character-driven of the Wimsey novels, this is Sayers doing a pure take on Sherlock Holmes, with a lush backdrop and a complicated mystery with a large number of plausible suspects. Although perhaps a bit too long, it's very well executed and accomplishes what it set out to do. There are issues of timing and distance, matters of motivation and suspicion, and clues in the habits of the suspects. Very neatly put together, it may be disappointing to those who read Wimsey for the characters (especially fans of the Harriet Vane books), but for pure mystery buffs, it's quite good.
Have His CarcaseHarper, PB, © 1932, 440 pp, ISBN #0-06-104352-4
Reviewed October 2000
What It's About: On vacation while working on her new novel, Harriet Vane finds the body of a gentleman dancer from the nearby town of Wilvercombe on a rock on the beach a low tide. His throat has been slit, and a razor lies at the base of the rock, blood flowing copiously. Unable to save the body from the high tide, Harriet gathers evidence, which she presents to the police. Peter reads of the event in the paper, and shows up to help out (and to woo Harriet, of course). Peter and Harriet suspect murder, although the police suspect suicide. It turns out the victim was a Russian exile who had recently engaged a wealthy widow. There are plenty of suspects about the sea-side town, but all have alibis.
What I Thought of It: Perhaps over-long, this is nonetheless a good mystery, hinging on timing and the very brazenness of the crime. Peter and Harriet measure and time distances, investigate everyone who could possibly have seen everything, and spend much of the time thoroughly bewildered by a complicated chain of events (or maybe, not so complicated after all?). There's even a neat aside where a straightforward yet (in the 1930s) tough-to-crack ciphering scheme is explained. The book's other flaw (besides its rambling length) is that the ultimate fate of some of the principals is left maddeningly vague, but at least we feel fairly confident that we know what happened.
Murder Must AdvertiseHarper, PB, © 1933, 356 pp, ISBN #0-06-104355-9
Reviewed October 2000
What It's About: Advertising copy-writer Victor Dean falls down some stairs and dies at Pym's Publicity one day. A few weeks later, a man named Death Bredon (in reality, our dashing hero) fills his shoes and begins inquiring about the circumstances of Dean's life, times, and demise. Dean had been running with Dian de Momerie's crowd of thrill-seekers and drug-consumers, and might have been blackmailing someone at Pym's. Before it's over, Peter gets involved with drug-smugglers, impersonates his fictional cousin, goes for a night-time car race, and plays in a cricket match.
What I Thought of It: One of the cleverest Wimsey stories in its presentation of the advertising field (in which Sayers worked for some years) and its tying in with the overall plot. (This novel and its two predecessors all rely on fairly complex schemes which Wimsey and company have to carefully unravel.) This is Wimsey at his lightest touch, and this book is best read after some of the earlier ones, or it might give you an unusual feel for the character. With proper understandingly, Wimsey's cavorting at Pym's and for de Momerie is delightful, and more enjoyable than the endless brooding surrounding Harriet Vane. The ending is rather cold-blooded, however, which makes for a sharp contrast, but the resolution is actually one of Sayers' stronger finishes.
The Nine TailorsHarcourt Brace Jovanovich, PB, © 1934, 310 pp, ISBN #0-15-665-899-2
Reviewed November 2000
(This is the one Wimsey mystery not available in Harper's line. As I write this, the current edition is oversized paperback; I sought out a smaller used copy to line up on my bookshelf with the others.)
What It's About: One New Year's Eve, Peter and Bunter are stranded in the rural village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The rector of the local church provides hospitality, and in return Peter spends the night ringing church-bells in an ambitious nine-hour project, filling in for a ringer who is one of several villagers struck with influenza. A few months later, the husband of one of the flu victims himself dies, and in being buried with his wife, an unknown body is found to be buried atop her casket. Wimsey is invited to investigate, and becomes embroiled in an attempt to recover an emerald necklace stolen back in 1914, the church's bells being touted as clues to the mystery.
What I Thought of It: Sayers frustrates late-20th century American readers by naming her chapters after bell-ringing terms without ever explaining what they all mean. Thankfully, the mystery doesn't turn on knowing any of this except for a very basic principle which is explained. It's a dark and moody story with plenty of tragedy to go around, but although it starts very slowly, it picks up in the middle, and has a clever resolution at the end. Sayers' method of dispensing justice is rather heavy-handed, though. Alas, I think that the stories that take Wimsey out of his usual London milieu are less interesting than ones that see him in his element, as the supporting cast is rarely as rich.
Gaudy NightHarper, PB, © 1936, 501 pp, ISBN #0-06-104349-4
Reviewed November 2000
What It's About: Harriet Vane travels to Oxford to attend The Gaudy, a reunion party at her fictional college of Shrewsbury. While there, she encounters two vicious letters targeting women at the college, including one referring to her murder accusation of several years earlier. A few weeks later she's called back by the Dean to investigate continuing disruptions, including many more poison pen letters, vandalism of a renovation of the library, and an electricity outage. She meets Peter's nephew Saint-George, and has another male student develop a crush on her, and a student at the college is driven to attempt suicide. Eventually she reluctantly invites Peter in to aid in the investigation, which turns on behavior in academia.
What I Thought of It: A unique Wimsey book in that it doesn't kick off with a murder, Gaudy Night is tediously long and dearly in need of editing for length. The mystery is rather perfunctory, and the book is mostly an exercise in plumbing the depths of Harriet's mind and her feelings for Peter, about which everyone around her seems aware. (Peter is conveniently off-stage on continental Europe for the first half of the novel.) Alas, I find Harriet to be a rather bland character; although she's clearly intelligent, independent and strong-willed, as a fictional protagonist she's not at Wimsey's level and just can't drive a book on her own. Although the ongoing courtship between Peter and Harriet comes to a head here, it's just not enough of a payoff. This is perhaps my least favorite of the Wimsey novels.
Busman's HoneymoonHarper, PB, © 1937, 403 pp, ISBN #0-06-104351-6
Reviewed December 2000
What It's About: Following their wedding, Peter and Harriet retreat to Talboys, a house near Harriet's childhood home which Peter has bought for her. The previous owner, Mr. Noakes, is mysteriously absent when they arrive, and soon turns up dead in the cellar, and in a considerable amount of debt to creditors as well as his gardner, Crutchley, and niece, Miss Twitterton. Superintendent Kirk looks into the case, the last man having seen Noakes alive having been his constable, Sellon, who at first lies about it. Meanwhile Peter and Harriet have trouble focusing on it owing to conflicts between a sense of duty to investigate and an obligation to start their new relationship.
What I Thought of It: The mystery here is slight indeed, turning on an entirely mechanical concept of how the murder was committed, and except for some bits focusing on Kirk and his investigation. The supporting cast is generally either thin or unlikeable, and the mystery doesn't even really begin until a quarter of the way through the book! The focus of the novel is primarily on Harriet and Peter and their relationship, which is decidedly rocky as they're of two minds as to whether Peter should investigate the murder, and still rather shell-shocked that they've actually gotten married. Some of this is genuinely believable and touching, but it gets tiresome at times, when Peter is singing (or talking) in French. The book ends with a 30-page denouement where Harriet visits Duke's Denver, and Peter rather implausibly agonizes over the results of his investigation. That whole section was entirely unrewarding and could have been snipped from the book wholesale. Overall, this is a bit better than Gaudy Night, but still quite disappointing.
Thrones, Dominationsfinished posthumously by Jill Paton Walsh
St. Martin's Press, PB, © 1998, 322 pp, ISBN #0-312-96830-2
Reviewed December 2000
What It's About: Peter and Harriet go to France after their honeymoon at Talboys, where they meet another recently-married couple, the wealthy Laurence Harwell and his wife Rosamund. Laurence backs plays for a hobby, with mixed success, while Rosamund's father spent several years in prison for allowing unscrupulous people to do illegal things in his name. Nonetheless, they are deeply in love. However, their marriage is strained by Rosamund's desire for Laurence to back a play by Claude Amery, her "pet poet", and her sitting for the amorous French painter Gaston Chapparelle. One day, Rosamund is found murdered in the Harwells' country retreat. Thanks to the Wimseys' acquaintance with the Harwells, Peter investigates her murder.
What I Thought of It: Thrones, Dominations was unfinished by Dorothy Sayers during her lifetime, and finished in the 1990s by Jill Paton Walsh. Although it contains what seem obvious nods to modern sensibilities (for instance, frank discussions of sex, where the topic was taboo save for the most oblique references in earlier novels), it's still very much in keeping with the tone of the Wimsey novels. (Indeed, it avoids the extended asides which lengthened the later novels unduly and thus reads more like the entertaining earlier books). Harriet's encounter with Peter's relative Lady Severn is fall-down funny, as is her ripostes with Helen, Duchess of Denver. The ongoing negotiations between Peter and Harriet over her career and his sleuthing hobby become a bit tiresome, especially after several hundred pages of the same in Busman's Honeymoon, although the respect they have for each other is always enjoyable and enlightening. As for the mystery itself, it's comparatively slight, although fine for what it is, though the culprit seems rather obvious from the outset and the motivations thereof a bit unsatisfying. Overall, Thrones, Dominations is a fine addition to the Wimsey oeuvre, perhaps most disappointing in that it leaves us ignorant of the Wimseys' later years.
Jill Paton Walsh has also written an all-new mystery in the series, A Presumption of Death (2003). I have not read it, and I'm not sure I want to, since on I'm not generally in favor of new authors carrying on series by a previous author. Besides which, as I'm not a fan of Harriet Vane, I have little interest in reading further stories about her and Wimsey's married life. If this is Walsh's last Wimsey novel, then I may read it at some point, but if she starts producing her own Wimsey series, then I probably will just leave off with Thrones, Dominations.
Finally, I sometimes get questions about other Sayers books which are not listed above. There are a few:
Lord Peter Views the Body, Striding Folly Hangman's Holiday, and In the Teeth of the Evidence are all short story collections. The first two are Wimsey stories, while the last two contain some Wimsey stories and other unrelated stories (Sayers had another series of short stories about a detective named Montague Egg). All of these stories are included in Lord Peter (and, for that matter, in Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories), so if you only want to read the Wimsey stories, then these four collections are superfluous.
The Documents in the Case is a novel by Sayers and Robert Eustace, unrelated to the Wimsey stories.
Sayers was also noted for her translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy, and wrote a miscellany of other non-fiction works.
Other Dorothy L. Sayers Web Sites
hits since 13 August 2000.
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