I was first introduced to Dorothy L. Sayers (not literally, of course; she died when I was 8 years old) by Alistair Cooke on PBS’ Mystery Series. Shown in two parts to begin with, I was totally captivated by the series first starring Ian Carmichael as Sayers’ noble sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, later, played by Edward Petherbridge. In The Nine Tailors (reference to a set of church bells) Lord Peter, suffering from shell shock after WWI, finds himself guest at a country estate where he had attended a party years earlier when the emeralds of a guest, Lady Attenbury, were stolen. Many mysterious events lead him to the discovery of the hidden jewels and he embarks on the most satisfying hobby of solving mysteries, especially ones involving corpses.
This was not actually the first episode to be filmed for the BBC, and subsequently aired on PBS in the United States, but it does explain how our hero takes to sleuthing along with his loyal manservant (who had served with him during the war), Bunter, who also had two players, first, Glyn Houston, and later by Richard Morant. There were five novels televised under the heading Lord Peter Wimsey, later followed by the three mysteries involving Ms. Harriet Vane, who Lord Peter rescues from the hangman’s noose in Strong Poison partly because he has decided he wants to marry her, but of course, he’d investigate it “for the fun of it,” anyway.
Shortly after I became hooked on the televised movies, I started purchasing the books to read for myself. The books propel you right into the early 20th century and the privileged life of Lord Peter and his manservant but they also bring alive the social complications that followed that first war to end all wars, and satirize the class system beautifully. If you’re a follower of Downton Abbey, you will in all likelihood thoroughly enjoy the Sayers’ mysteries in print and/or DVD. Here is the beginning of one of my favourite Sayers’ novels, Whose Body?
‘Oh Damn!’ said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus. ‘Hi, driver!’
The taxi man, irritated at receiving this appeal while negotiating the intricacies of turning into Lower Regent Street across the route of a 19 bus, a 38-B and a bicycle, bent an unwilling ear.
‘I’ve left the catalogue behind,’ said Lord Peter deprecatingly, ‘uncommonly careless of me. D’you mind puttin’ back to where we came from?’
‘To the Savile Club, sir?’
‘No — 110A Piccadilly — just beyond — thank you.’
‘Thought you was in a hurry,’ said the man, overcome with a sense of injury.
‘I’m afraid it’s an awkward place to turn in,’ said Lord Peter, answering the thought rather than the words. His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.
The taxi, under the severe eye of a policeman, revolved by slow jerks with a noise like the grinding of teeth.
The block of new, perfect and expensive flats in which Lord Peter dwelt upon the second floor, stood directly opposite the Green Park, in a spot for many years occupied by the skeleton of a frustrate commercial enterprise. As Lord Peter let himself in he heard his man’s voice in the library, uplifted in that throttled stridency peculiar to well-trained persons using the telephone.
‘I believe that’s his lordship just coming in again — if your Grace would kindly hold the line a moment.’
‘What is it, Bunter?’
‘Her Grace has just called up from Denver, my lord, I was just saying your lordship had gone to the sale when I heard your lordship’s latchkey.’
‘Thanks,’ said Lord Peter; ‘and you might find me the catalogue, would you? I think I must have left it in my bedroom, or on the desk.’
He sat down to the telephone with an air of leisurely courtesy, as though it were an acquaintance dropped in for a chat.
‘Hullo, Mother — that you?’
‘Oh, there you are, dear,’ replied the voice of the Dowager Duchess. ‘I was afraid I’d just missed you.’
‘Well, you had, as a matter of fact. I’d just started off to Brocklebury’s sale to pick up a book or two, but I had to come back for the catalogue. What’s up?’
‘Such a quaint thing,’ said the Duchess. ‘I thought I’d tell you. You know little Mr. Thipps?’
‘Thipps?’ said Lord Peter. ‘Thipps? Oh, yes, the little architect man who’s doing the church roof. Yes. What about him?’
‘Mrs. Throgmorton’s just been in, in quite a state of mind.’
‘Sorry, Mother, I can’t hear. Mrs. Who?’
‘Throgmorton — Throgmorton — the vicar’s wife.’
‘Oh, Throgmorton, yes?’
‘Mr. Thipps rang them up this morning. It was his day to come down, you know.’
‘He rang them up to say he couldn’t. He was so upset, poor little man. He’d found a dead body in his bath.’
‘Sorry, Mother, I can’t hear; found what, where?’
‘A dead body, dear, in his bath.’
‘What? — no, no, we haven’t finished. Please don’t cut us off. Hullo! Hullo! Is that you, Mother? Hullo! — Mother! — Oh yes — sorry, the girl was trying to cut us off. What sort of body?’
‘A dead man, dear, with nothing on but a pair of pince-nez.’
There, you have it! Isn’t that intriguing? Books or DVDs, you can’t go wrong. Dorothy L. Sayers’ mysteries are among the very best! Available at Amazon and other fine booksellers.