If ever there was a category called the Theologian’s Favourite Mystery Novelist, a serious contender would be Dorothy Sayers for her Lord Peter Wimsey series.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. All 11 books reviewed in one episode.
The first book, “Whose Body?” was published in 1923. That’s 100 years ago. The widespread acclaim led to more and more books, Sayers ditched her advertising day job to be a full-time writer. The Lord Peter Wimsey series concludes in 1937 with “Busman’s Honeymoon”.
Dorothy Sayers is a name that comes up often in the books I read. She seems to be a favourite for many theologians and Christian writers. But I didn’t know anything about her or felt compelled to read her books until I listened to an Undeceptions episode where John Dickson interviewed Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing, who studied Sayers for her PhD at Oxford University.
To my disbelief, in her day Dorothy Sayers was as famous, actually more famous, than Agatha Christie. Christie is my favourite detective writer so it shocks me to know there was someone better than her. Perhaps the reason for Christie’s longevity is because she continued churning out detective novels while Sayers…
Sayers put her writing talents to the drama of Christianity. She had the cheek to put everyday English into the mouths of Jesus and the disciples. Many Christians protested, preferring their Saviour to speak in King James English. In an essay titled, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”, Sayers responded:
[It’s as if] Christ wasn’t born into history – He was born into the Bible (Authorised Version) – a place where nobody makes love or gets drunk or cracks jokes, or talks slang, or cheats, or despises his neighbours … no wonder the story makes so little impression on the common man.
Sayers wrote theological books including: “The Mind of the Maker” which explores the nature of God and creativity and another book is titled, “Are Women Human?” which addresses the role of women in society. Sayers was notably one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University.
Recognising the impact of her radio plays and books, the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted to award Sayers the prestigious Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. She turned it down.
Dr. Amy in that Undeceptions episode suggests it’s because Sayers the famous crime writer and public theologian felt unworthy because she hid a secret sin.
You see, Dorothy Sayers fell in love with a non-Christian who did not believe in marriage. Because of her faith, Sayers would not sleep with the man before marriage. Eventually they separated because the man told her that he would not get married on principle. A few months later, that man got married. She was devastated because she really, really loved him. Later, she got involved with a married man, slept with him, got pregnant, had the child. A child who was then brought up by her cousin.
For more on Sayers her life and work, please go to the Undeceptions episode. One day I hope to review the books of Dorothy Sayers the theologian but for today I review the books of Dorothy Sayers the crime writer.
LOTR of Detective Novels
Let us now turn to the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel series.
Having finished the series, I would say that Lord Peter Wimsey is to mystery novels as the Lord of the Rings is to fantasy.
“Surely not! Nobody knows Lord Peter Wimsey, so how can it be at Lord of the Rings level?”
What I meant is you can see Tolkien’s Christian faith bleed into Middle-Earth making the epic story seem real. In the same way, Sayer’s faith bleeds into 20th century England and makes the people more real than the paper-thin characters you read or watch on TV.
Consider Agatha Christie’s books which are also set in post World War 1 England. People go to church, they fundraise to repair the church roof, there is even a murder in the vicarage. But Christianity here is nominal. We read the inner thoughts of a murderer but we never read the inner thoughts of a believer.
Whereas in Sayer’s world. Christianity is overt. It’s almost in your face.
Detective Parker Reads Commentaries (to Relax)
In chapter 3 of the first novel, Lord Peter and Detective Parker are tracking a criminal through a little wood. Lord Peter says:
I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business. If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.
There are many difficulties inherent in a teleological view of creation.
When I read this I was laughing out loud with delight. For it is a line written by a theologian for readers who enjoy theology and mystery. No wonder, J.I. Packer lists Sayers among his favourite writers. No wonder, so many of the books I read cites Sayers.
How does Detective Parker relax after a long day of chasing murderers. I quote:
Parker was sitting in an elderly but affectionate armchair, with his feet on the mantelpiece, relaxing his mind with a modern commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. He received Lord Peter with quiet pleasure, though without rapturous enthusiasm, and mixed him a whisky-and-soda. Peter took up the book his friend had laid down and glanced over the pages.
“All these men work with a bias in their minds, one way or other,” he said, “they find what they are looking for.”
Listen to Parker’s response:
“Oh, they do but one learns to discount that almost automatically, you know. When I was at college, I was all on the other side — Conybeare, Robertson and Drews and those people, you know, till I found they were all so busy looking for a burglar whose nobody had ever seen, that they couldn’t recognise the footprints of the household, so to speak. Then I spent two years learning to be cautious.”
Lord Peter then concludes:
“Theology must be a good exercise for the brain.”
Reading Sayers is a good tickle for the theologian’s brain. That conversation is about eisegesis, reading into the text what you want it to say. And Parker’s response is a detective’s rebuke to a theologians fault.
Miss Climpson on Friendship and Idolatry
Let’s have a look at another character. Miss Climpson is a spinster who helps Lord Peter dig things up. In the course of digging things up, she strikes a conversation with a young lady about friendship.
The young lady says:
A great friendship does make demands. It’s got to be just everything to one. It’s wonderful the way it seems to colour all one’s thoughts. Instead of being centred in oneself, one’s centred in the other person. That’s what Christian love means — one’s ready to die for the other person.”
Miss Climpson replies:
Well, I don’t know. I once heard a sermon about that from a most splendid priest — and he said that that kind of love might become idolatry if one wasn’t very careful. He said that Milton’s remark about Eve — you know, ‘he for God only, she for God in him’ — was not congruous with Catholic doctrine. One must get the proportions right, and it was out of proportion to see everything through the eyes of another fellow-creature.
Harriet Vane or Dorothy Sayers?
Another great strong character is Harriet Vane. She appears in the novel, “Strong Poison”. The character is a writer of detective novels. And if you think this is a bit meta-, you haven’t heard the rest. So Harriet is on trial for poisoning Philip Boyes. Philip is a man who does not believe in marriage. Harriet agrees to live with him without marrying. Philip later changes his mind and decides to marry Harriet after all. Harriet gets angry and breaks off the relationship. Was she angry enough to kill him?
I got a chill when I saw in Harriet Vane, the secret life of Dorothy Sayers. And the whole novel became a meta-mystery. Which is fiction and which is autobiographical?
They are side characters. Parker, Miss Climpson, Harriet. I would love to talk about Bunter the faithful servant or the Wimsey family, his mother, brother Gerald and Mary. They are all important in the series. But I must now turn to Lord Peter Wimsey.
British detectives are like superheroes. Sherlock Holmes, was after all, acted out by both Ironman and Dr. Strange. Armed with his smoking pipe and superior intelligence, Sherlock catches his man, “Elementary, my dear Watson”.
Lord Peter Wimsey has his monocle but take away his noble birth, his immense wealth, his service in the war, he would be a fairly ordinary man. In one case, it was not even he who solved it. It just somehow ringed a bell. Just because he is less of a super hero does not make him boring.
Lord Peter Wimsey reminds me of another famously rash and unpredictable Peter. No, I don’t mean the Apostle Peter. I mean, Peter Quill from Guardians of the Galaxy. Yes, it might be a bad idea to watch that movie and do this review because I am in danger of reviewing both and neither.
If you have watched the movies, you have seen Peter Quill in the first movie. Despite every attempt to stop Ronan the Accuser, it looks like all is lost. The heroes are beaten. Ronan is giving his victory speech and then… Peter does the coolest thing ever… And if you have never watched the movie, you should watch it in disbelief. What is more, through out the movies we see in Peter Quill, beneath that devil may care cockiness, there is vulnerability and naivety that endears.
If I could choose one fictional detective to be a friend, I would choose Lord Peter Wimsey. He would make a good friend, he is funny, unpredictable, loyal and such a sensitive soul.
If you plan to pick up any of the Lord Peter Wimsey books, I suggest you read it in order. Otherwise you will miss out on the special events, the in-jokes, the callbacks.
Just to take one example: you will miss out on the Wimsey family growing as a family. Sherlock has a brother, Mycroft. But really, other than that freakish Holmes genes, the brothers might as well be friends, colleagues or total strangers.
Not so with Gerald and Peter Wimsey. Here we have history, undercurrents, family expectations and how they grow. They all grow. Parker. Climpson. Harriet. Bunter. Lord Peter Wimsey. That is what makes this such a compelling read.
Write What You Know
There is one thing that could keep people away from the series. While the language is a bit harder to get into for the casual reader, it is surpassable. A tougher barrier is the world she brings you into.
You know how kids complain about getting dragged by their parents to someplace that they insist is fun but is not. In other detective books, the world is incidental. You could easily transplant the plot into a modern world.
When Dorothy Sayers puts the story in Oxford University, we get the buildings, the dons, students, ceremony, the world is very real. In another book, the story is in an advertising agency. Again, we are immersed whether you like it or not into the nuts and bolts of advertising in 1920s England. Oh by the way, did I mention that Sayers studied at Oxford University and worked at an advertising agency?
She writes what she knows and sometimes that means the details get in the way of the plot. Sometimes she makes a reference, she quotes something, which I just don’t understand. If you like world-building in your books, Sayers is your writer. There are moments I would have given up reading if not for the ensemble of characters that I have grown to love and respect.
Agatha vs. Dorothy
Let me conclude by putting Dorothy Sayers against her contemporary Agatha Christie. I have read all the Agatha Christie books. She wrote 66 detective novels, six times more than Sayers. Here is the difference between the two: Christie is plot-driven; Sayers is character-driven. Christie has a gimmick, the ABC murders, the Labours of Hercules, the Murder in the Orient Express. Sayers has Wimsey, Bunter, Harriet, Climpson and Parker. In Christie, it’s “What will happen next?” In Sayers, it’s “What will he do, what is she thinking, how does he feel?” In Christie, the world ends when the case is solved. In Sayers, the world seems to carry on.
Of the eleven books, I liked the early books. They succeeded in hooking me in. The middle books can be a bit hard going. Sayers seems more confident and expects the reader to be able to go the distance with her in her world building. The series ends well. And makes the whole journey worth it. Sayers treats her characters with a lot of respect. Maybe because there is too much of her in them. Her secret sin, her life in Oxford University, working in an advertising agency.
For Christians, the unique experience here is we get Dorothy Sayers the nascent theologian putting her faith into this world. A world that comes alive through the characters and the sincerity of their stories.
This is a Reading and Readers review of the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. I bought the 3 volume box set in Amazon Kindle for a hundred dollars.
As we just heard, what Detective Parker’s hobby is to read a Bible commentary. And what do you know, for August, Logos is offering a free commentary on the Letters of John. This NIV Application Commentary is written by Gary M. Burge and the series is accessible, for the busy detective seeking to wind down after a hard day’s work chasing murderers, and also for you. So get this free book, while it’s still August. Thanks for listening. Bye bye.
- The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. Amazon.