Conundrums for the Long Week-end – Robert Kuhn McGregor with Ethan Lewis

… 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.

A Busman’s honeymoon & the delights of audio books

I’ve just finished listening to Ian Carmichael reading Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. This post isn’t really about the book or Sayers or Wimsey, but about the delights of audio books. The book is wonderful, the culmination of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane, the woman he saved from the hangman in Strong Poison & pursued for five years until they finally came together in an equal, loving relationship at the end of Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon is really one for the Wimsey fans though. It’s been described as a love story with detective interruptions which pretty much sums it up. The book begins with Peter & Harriet’s wedding & takes them on their honeymoon to Tallboys, a Tudor farmhouse in the village where Harriet grew up. The bliss of the honeymoon is disturbed by the discovery of the body of the former owner in the cellar & the Wimseys investigate. There’s a wonderful cast of eccentric villagers, from Mr Puffett the chimneysweep to Miss Twitterton, the victim’s niece, a spinster who keeps Buff Orpington hens. I’ve read the book probably half a dozen times & listened to the audio book at least as often.

My library had all the Wimsey books read by Ian Carmichael on cassette & recently they’ve been released on CD so I’m taking the chance to listen to them again. To me, Ian Carmichael is Peter Wimsey. Whenever I read the books, I hear his voice. He played Wimsey on television in the early 70s & you can see a photo of my old video copies of some of the series above. That series didn’t include any of the Harriet Vane books & in the 80s, Edward Petherbridge & Harriet Walter starred in a new TV series of Strong Poison, Have His Carcase & Gaudy Night, all excellent adaptations. Ian Carmichael died at the great age of 90 earlier this year & I was interested to read that he had also played Bertie Wooster on TV in the 60s. As a recent Wodehouse convert, I think he would have been perfect in the role.

I’ve ended up writing about the book after all but it’s the fortunate combination of book & narrator that I really want to emphasize. Elaine’s post at Random Jottings about the delights of listening to Richard Armitage reading Georgette Heyer led me to reflect on my own love of audio books. I always listen to an audio book in the car on my daily drive to work. My library has a great collection of unabridged audio books & I look forward to each new delivery. Abridged vs unabridged is another point. I prefer unabridged recordings because I wouldn’t want to read an abridged version of a book so why listen to only part of the book? I’m lucky to have had access to a wide collection of unabridged audio as I certainly couldn’t afford to buy them. I also enjoy radio productions. The BBC have done hundreds of full-cast recordings of classics, Shakespeare, fiction, mysteries, anything you could think of. But, I mostly listen to unabridged audio books read by one narrator.

Some of my favourite listening experiences have been Harriet Walter reading Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Gwen Watford reading some of the Miss Read books, Christian Rodska reading the C J Sansom Shardlake mysteries, Cornelius Garrett reading Anne Perry’s WWI series (I loved his reading so much that I would wait for the audio book to come out rather than reading the book), Bill Wallis’s gruff, smoky voice reading the Ruth Dudley Edwards mysteries, Samuel West reading Mary Wesley & Iris Murdoch, Robert Glenister reading The Fall by Simon Mawer. My absolute favourites though are the Barbara Pym recordings done by Chivers Audio many years ago. I listened to the cassettes until they were nearly worn out & I do hope they release them on CD as part of their current program of Bestsellers on CD. Juliet Stevenson reading Excellent Women, Susan Jameson reading A Glass of Blessings & Julia McKenzie reading Some Tame Gazelle were my favourites. I still hear their voices when I reread the books.

Of course, not every listening experience is a stand-out. There are some narrators I avoid like the plague because their reading is so dull it puts me to sleep. Not a good idea when driving! Audio books are another way of reading for me. I never have enough reading time but at least I can have a book read to me when I’m driving, ironing or cooking. Now if I could only work out a way to read in my sleep, I might have a chance at getting through my tbr shelves before my 100th birthday.