This first collection of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short stories was published in 1928, after a few Lord Peter Wimsey novels had already been published. The stories range from tales of detection, through tales of puzzle-solving, and into tales of adventure. Aside from all sharing the trait of ridiculously long titles, quite a few of them are what I’ll call “hobby-themed”; they turn on a particular interest. Generally this is a high-culture or high-class interest. Lord Peter resolves the plot through his specialist knowledge of this hobby. The best stories in this collection share an infectious exuberance that kept me reading even when nothing related to a mystery seems to be happening at all.
Though Peter Wimsey features in every story, his arrival is played with – in many cases, he appears before being identified, sometimes very late into the story. This often adds an amusing touch, as we are treated to reactions from characters unfamiliar with him – one part of the farce-like comedy of manners approach taken by some of the stories. Perhaps there’s also an element of satisfaction when the reader identifies him amongst anonymous members of the public, like a game Sayers is playing with the reader.
The collection veers around in style and tone, but there’s plenty of entertainment to be had, and some of the stories are excellent.
If you only read one story…
…read The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face.
(If you read 2/3 of a story, read The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention).
The individual summaries:
The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers:
A man tells of his two visits to a famous, and eccentric, artist – one of which ends in unsettling fashion.
The horrifying tale told in a gentlemens’ club is a very Holmesian format (as are the brief hints of other mysterious tales we will never read in full). This features the first appearance of a scenario that will pop up again later (and in a different collection) – that of the insanely jealous husband exacting horrifying revenge against his wife. This tale is more horror than detection, but I found it atmospheric and effective. It has some elements which may have gone on to inspire John Dickson Carr or even Japanese mystery fiction, with its macabre mirroring of imagery and plot.
The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question:
An incident on a train in France foreshadows a jewel theft back in England. I was not such a fan of this story, the main reason being that I don’t speak French. Sayers merrily has the whole introductory section filled with untranslated French dialogue, and the central clue/twist is inaccessible to anyone with no knowledge of the language. The crime itself is a bit predictable.
The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will:
A young woman recieves an unusual will which requires her to go against her principles in order to profit. This is a hobby-based story centering around a crossword, which is included with the text – solve it yourself! Or don’t. It’s not much of a detective story, though Sayers works in a few extra obstacles to keep the story going along in interesting ways. Also a perfect specimen of Golden Age crime fiction’s version of Communism and the problems faced by those lacking money.
The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag:
An informal motorcycle race between two bikers turns into a nightmare when they discover exactly what prompted them to start their pursuit.
Another of Sayers’ hobbies, apparently, was motorcycling, and it really shows here: the opening description of the motor race is enthralling. The story takes as many sudden swerves as the motorcycles, treating the sudden intrusion of the actual mystery as a kind of nasty joke. The change of scene needed to deliver the conclusion is a little abrupt. There’s a good example of Wimsey using his methods from Whose Body to prompt the memory of a witness, though.
The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker:
A blackmail victim seeks Lord Peter’s help, and Wimsey resorts to some unusual methods to recover the blackmail material.
This one covers card-playing. This story was a bit too thin, and it’s too obvious how Wimsey will entrap his quarry. And he’s in full obnoxious droppin’ g’s mode here.
The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention:
Lord Peter is visiting friends in the village of Little Doddering, and winds up tangling with church vandals, weird wills, and ghostly carriages.
The main interest in the opening of this longer story is gentle satire of the village magistrate Wimsey is staying with, as well as other village chracters – but once the headless horseman appears, I thought this was very entertaining and probably the funniest of the stories, as more and more threads are added until everything spills over into farce at the end. It might be my personal favourite of the collection. For the length the ratio of g’s dropped is much more reasonable, too.
By my estimate, skip 18 pages(!) in, to “The train, presumably, was punctual”, and you’ll have a good time and catch up on what’s going on. Of course I can’t forget what I learned from the first section, but if you try it, let me know! It’s all for the sake of science.
The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps That Ran:
Peter Wimsey is visiting a doctor friend when a murder is committed in the flat above.
Another slow starter, but with the scope narrower than the previous story, the conversations can be a little more intersting – although they’re completely irrelevant to the actual crime. Bunter must have to sweep up after Lord Peter with the amount of g’s he’s dropping though. There’s some excellent summer heatwave atmosphere. With the setting limited to one location, more detail and vividness can be built up around it. The crime itself is a simple one and Wimsey solves it quickly and cleverly. The trick is ingenious – as is the way he pages through his and Bunter’s memory in order to figure out which little detail is wrong. Perhaps it would be spoilers to mention that this features a repeat of a motif seen earlier in the collection.
The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste:
In this adventurous story we are presented with multiple Lord Peters Wimsey, who have arrived at a chateau to obtain a secret formula for the British goverment. The owner of the chateau decides to determine the real Wimsey by way of a wine tasting session.
Wine expertise is also used to detect an impostor in a Philip Trent story, which probably came after this one, and Sayers also wrote stories featuring a wine salesman as a detective. The central trick/joke is quite fun, but the wine-tasting stuff is pretty boring.
The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head:
Peter Wimsey’s antiquarian book knowledge is put to the test here – along with his childminding skills – as he leads his young nephew on quest for treasure.
I am not sure I’d allow Wimsey to look after the child of a friend, but I guess the kid has fun. Treasure hunt stories are typically not my favourites, but I enjoyed this one more than most, even though Lord Peter is extremely irresponsible!
The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach:
Lord Peter investigates another barmy will, for another young doctor friend who has been bequeathed his Great Uncle Joseph’s stomach. At least this time the gulls get a meal out of it, though I’m not sure things end well for them.
As the title implies, the hobby this time is fishing, though the only fishing we see on-page is of a rather unconventional kind. I did enjoy the description of Lord Peter sowing chaos at a book sale, but otherwise found things broadly unfunny, with the “satirical” (translation: stereotyped) Jewish character and the phonetic Scottish accent being particular lowlights.
The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face:
Lord Peter investigates the murder of a man found wearing only a bathing suit, whose face has been mutilated beyond recognition.
The story opens with one of those discussions in public places that Sayers seems to enjoy writing (more can be found in the Montague Egg stories), as holidaymakers discuss the shocking murder while pushing their own pet theories. The initially anonymous Peter Wimsey seems reluctant to join in, but quickly ends up forming a spectacular theory, complete with leads, from only the facts as related by the newspapers (like Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner). It’s a tour-de-force scene of deduction, and I always enjoy a Sayers discussion scene. That said, “[strangling is] Not a characteristically Italian way of killing” – thanks for demonstrating your criminological expertise, Lord Peter.
It’s interesting to read this Lord Peter story filled with all kinds of well-sketched characters from different walks of life. I particularly liked the journalist, but found the racist policeman to be unpleasant (I think he was probably meant to be).
The classic “breakdown of identity” trope is discussed with the damaged face, but Wimsey’s explanation turns out to be something darker and more unusual. The “fairy story” Lord Peter relates at the end has a more psychologically unsettling atmosphere than is usual for these stories, and I finished my read unsure as to whether Wimsey’s decision was the correct one.
The Adventure of the Cave of Ali Baba:
A secret society of criminals discovers a traitor in their ranks and tangles with a cunning trap.
This is a pure adventure story – well written, with some excellent imagery. But it really is totally ludicrous. How well it works is going to depend on how much you get swept up in the atmosphere. Despite its unreality, I admire it for its sheer difference to the rest of the stories (I guess it fits most closely with A Matter of Taste).
I suppose the detective playing dead for years is another Holmesian touch – after the collection opening with one, it closes with one too. But it just doesn’t seem to fit with stories like “The Man with No Face”. I guess I’ll get to see more of Lord Peter Wimsey: Deep Cover Agent when I get round to reading Murder Must Advertise.