Reading List 2011 (13/214)

Have some of my favorites!

  • Whose Body?, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Unnatural Death, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Five Red Herrings, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Thrones, Dominations, Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh
  • Lord Peter, Dorothy L. Sayers

tl;dr – Great mysteries in a variety of sub-genres, unified by a masterful handling of character and plot. Also, I wish my brain worked more like Peter Wimsey’s.

I love this series. They’re on the short list of books I return to when I’m unusually anxious, unusually busy, or otherwise stressed. I re-read these while putting together my applications for faculty jobs – so, basically, both anxious and busy – and they were exactly what the doctor ordered.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to notice different things each time I re-read a book (or in this case, a series). For example, the last time I read these I spent a lot of time thinking about how different the books are from one another. Five Red Herrings is a trains-and-timetables story; The Nine Tailors focuses on the dark secrets of a country village; Strong Poison is a locked-room mystery, of sorts; Busman’s Honeymoon is unapologetically a romantic comedy. (By this I mean a novel that is both romantic and comic, not a story that relies on ridiculous and contrived obstacles to the path of Oh So True Love for its limited interest.)

In the hands of another novelist, these books might feel disconnected, but Sayers integrates them through her masterful evocation of character and setting. Lord Peter Wimsey, her detective-hero, and the not-in-enough-books detective novelist Harriet Vane both have remarkably strong personalities, which are expressed not just in how they investigate, but also in how they speak and what they value. Any scene where the two of them speak to each other is pure gold. (My favorite is their first interaction ever, at the beginning of Strong Poison. But really you can’t go wrong.) The secondary characters are equally idiosyncratic, from the strong-willed but easily distracted Dowager Duchess of Denver to the inquisitive and chatty Miss Climpson. If the characters weren’t so grounded in the larger world Sayers creates, they could easily become caricatures of themselves. But because Sayers beautifully evokes England between the wars, even when the characters are acting more cartoonishly, they come off as satires rather than cardboard. Miss Climpson, for example, is sometimes quite consciously drawn as a type of the “old maid,” which gives us a view into that particular social stratum at the time.  Plus, Peter and Harriet are always drawn as fully human – a remarkable achievement, across a dozen novels, which serves to ground the other characters’ occasional dizziness.

This time around, I also couldn’t stop noticing the running theme of cultivation. The ability to quote dozens of sources – from the classics to Kai Lung (which I’d never heard of, pre-Sayers). An epicurean enjoyment of food and drink. Appreciation of beauty, both as a collector and an aesthete. Together these things form a certain picture of what it means to be a cultivated person in Sayers’ world. It made me think about how much of our modern American idea of cultivation isn’t about pleasure, but rather about effort, discipline and work. The notion of an essential skill being to enjoy, intelligently is not an ideal we perpetuate.

I’ve certainly imagined myself as the prickly, brilliant, intense Harriet, with Lord Peter perpetually at my feet. (Haven’t most smart women, reading this series?) But these days I’m actually identifying with Lord Peter himself – seeking work that matters, while cultivating my mind and heart toward intelligent delight.

So far, so good – though I don’t think I’ll ever have a brain that can retrieve quotes on demand!

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