… the fictional history of Peter Wimsey has become emblematic of its time. Unlike practically any of the other famous fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey’s career was fully defined by a single epoch. He came to life as the long week-end began in the wake of the Great War; he disappeared as World War II sealed the week-end’s close.
The subtitle of this book is England, Dorothy L Sayers & Lord Peter Wimsey. The authors have combined literary criticism & social history to place Peter Wimsey & Dorothy L Sayers in the England of the interwar period. As Sayers is my favourite Golden Age detective novelist, this book was always going to appeal to me. It was written in 2000 & I’m almost sure I read it back then. However, seeing it in a recommended list of e-books on Amazon was enough to inspire me to download it & read it again over the last few days.
McGregor & Lewis have looked at the life of Dorothy L Sayers & tell the story of how she came to write the Wimsey books. At first, she wrote them for the money. She was an avid reader of detective stories & thrillers & throughout the series she makes some quite pointed comments about other writers. She was also unhappy in her personal life with several frustrating & unfulfilling relationships & the birth of her illegitimate son, John Anthony. She kept her son’s existence a secret from almost everyone & especially her parents. She worked as a teacher &, more famously, at Benson’s advertising agency, until the success of the Wimsey novels enabled her to concentrate on her writing.
The other focus of the book is the political & social history of the period between the wars. Famously called The Long Week-end by Robert Graves & Alan Hodge in their book of this name, McGregor & Lewis trace the preoccupations of Sayers & her world in the themes & settings of the novels. Each chapter begins with an overview of the political & social situation in England & Europe & then the discussion moves on to Sayers’s life & the novels she was working on. This certainly focuses the reader on the topicality of many of the plots & social settings of the books, especially the far-reaching impact of the Great War on England. Peter Wimsey suffered from shell-shock & the after-effects of this are evident in the early books of the series. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club begins on Armistice Day & features several characters who have been damaged by their war service. Have His Carcase is set at Wilvercombe, a watering place where middle-aged women fall in love with gigolos & the agricultural slump leads to the commission of a horrible murder.
Sayers had an intellectual interest in the writing of detective fiction & wrote Introductions to several collections of stories by the best-known authors in the genre. She especially acknowledged the influence of Wilkie Collins & Sheridan LeFanu, the 19th century writers who paved the way for Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace & the Golden Age writers. As a graduate of Oxford, Sayers was also interested in the role of women in society & her creation of Harriet Vane, detective novelist, accused murderer & the woman Peter Wimsey wants to marry, allows her to explore this theme. Through Harriet, Sayers is able to discuss the writing of detective fiction as well as provide a compelling portrait of a professional woman. My favourite novel in the series, Gaudy Night, is the least conventional as a detective novel. Set mainly in a women’s college at Oxford, Harriet takes centre stage as she tries to discover the identity of a malicious poison pen. Discussions about the place of women in society & the importance of the intellectual life are just as important as the detection.
The final book about Peter & Harriet, Busman’s Honeymoon, started life as a play &, apart from the beginning of a novel, Thrones, Dominations (later finished by Jill Paton Walsh in 1998) & a few short stories written during WWII, that was the end of the story. McGregor & Lewis examine the reasons behind Sayers’s decision to abandon this unfinished novel. Apart from having finally married off her two leading characters, Sayers was writing Thrones, Dominations during the period of the death of George V & the Abdication crisis of 1936. Suddenly the theme of marriage was just a little too delicate. Sayers was also becoming interested in other work, including her plays on religious themes & so the novel was put aside & never resumed.
Conundrums for the Long Week-end is a book for Wimsey fans who have read all the books as the plots are fully discussed & the murderers are named. You have been warned! I enjoyed it because of the way that the authors tied together the wider social history of the period with Sayers’s life & the progress of her creation of two of the most intriguing characters in detective fiction.