When readers think of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the first name that comes to mind is inevitably Agatha Christie. Christie’s books are some of the bestselling of all time. She is a mainstay of pop culture, from a portrayal on the time-travelling TV show Doctor Who to the longest initial run of any play in history for The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and is still on stage today. However, Christie is not my favorite mystery writer. I much prefer Dorothy L. Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey series.
Sayers lived an unconventional, fascinating life. She was one of the first women to earn a degree from Oxford, was a noted scholar, and translated Dante in addition to her own fiction. She worked in advertising for many years and authored some brilliant ad campaigns. Much like her heroine Harriet Vane, Sayers had a troubled romantic relationship which greatly influenced the direction of the Lord Peter series. Some see Vane as a Mary Sue stand-in for Sayers, but, like any good writer, she used her experiences and personal suffering to create a rich inner life for a character she must have strongly identified with.
Lord Peter Wimsey is a wealthy man-about-town and expert in everything who, in his free time, amuses himself by solving mysteries. Perhaps amuse is not the right word. Lord Peter sometimes struggles to accept solutions to the mysteries, to balance his personal feelings for the murderer against the horrible deed committed. At times, what he uncovers causes mental breakdowns, exacerbated by his flashbacks to service in World War I, when he suffered a traumatic event and subsequent shell-shock.
A few books into the series, Lord Peter meets the woman whom he believes could be his match. He finds her in unpleasant circumstances. She is on trial for her life, accused of murdering her boyfriend, and the fact that Lord Peter saves her affects the nature of their ensuing relationship. Harriet feels that she ought to be grateful, but she is prickly and bitter and has difficulty accepting the idea of marriage.
My favorite in the series is Gaudy Night, which is not a murder mystery, and maybe not even a particularly good mystery. The thing that distinguishes Gaudy Night is that it is a good novel in its own right, examining issues of scholarship and confronting the past, the differences between mature love and youthful passion. It is a feminist work about the importance of education for women and finding one’s equal, the serious issues interspersed with humor and excellent dialogue and character development. This is a mystery that is more character-driven than plot-driven, and as I prefer the former anyway, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books of all time.
The books can be read in any order, though I would recommend reading in chronological order, particularly the Harriet Vane books. This list does not include short stories featuring Lord Peter.
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1930) *Features Harriet Vane
- The Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932) *Features Harriet Vane
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935) *Features Harriet Vane
- Busman’s Honeymoon: A Love Story With Detective Interruptions (1937) *Features Harriet Vane