Writing in January, 1946, to his friend, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler defined what in crime fiction makes a successful detective. Although, Chandler believed, “an eccentric character wears out its welcome,” he declared, “The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” That description fit not only Chandler’s own fictional detective, Philip Marlowe, but also Gardner’s creation, Perry Mason.
Nearing eighty years later, it is safe to say Chandler got it wrong. Eccentric fictional detectives survive and flourish, whether in the form of Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse. Chandler (1888-1959) grew up in England, attended Dulwich College, a public (private) school that was also the alma mater of P. G. Wodehouse, and then got a post in the Admiralty. As a result of knowing that Edwardian world so well, Chandler could not take seriously a variation on the theme of the eccentric detective, an “old school tie” fictional sleuth like Lord Peter Wimsey.
When in 1923 in a novel called Whose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers introduced the character of Lord Peter Wimsey, she at first sketched him as a version of Wodehouse’s comic figure, Bertie Wooster. Soon, however, Wimsey developed as a complex personality, knowledgeable about rare books and classical music, yet dealing with nightmares from his service in the trenches during the First World War. From his monocle to his spats, he presented a deceptive façade, a seemingly stuffy aristocrat who appeared more skilled at selecting the right cufflinks and boutonnière than using forensic analysis and automatic firearms.
Wimsey was the younger son of a duke and thus had the money and leisure to make a hobby of criminology. His cases often centered around London, where he lived, but his adventures found him as far afield as the fens of East Anglia and the lowlands of Scotland. In London he went undercover in an advertising agency, and on another occasion, he solved a murder that occurred in his own private club.
Harkening back to the association of a medieval knight and his squire, Sayers gave Wimsey a loyal assistant in Mervyn Bunter. Bunter served under Wimsey during the war and then after the war became his valet. Skilled in photography and fingerprinting, Bunter took part in Wimsey’s investigations, and he became Wimsey’s ears and eyes in a world off-limits to his lordship, the servants’ quarters of vicarages and manor houses.
In the tenth Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night, published and set in 1935, Sayers revealed more about her hero’s inner life. There Wimsey divided his energies between undertaking diplomatic missions to Rome and unraveling a poison-pen mystery at a mythical women’s college in Oxford. His presence in Oxford came by invitation of the object of his unrequited affections, a mystery novelist named Harriet Vane, an alumna of that fictional college.
To her in Chapter 14 Wimsey spoke of what was important to him. “It’s a relief to get back and find you here,” he told her, “and all this going on as it used to do. Here’s where the real things are done, Harriet.” His work for the Foreign Office had left him drained, and he exclaimed, “God! how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere—nothing but propaganda and special pleading and ‘what do we get out of this?’ No time, no peace, no silence; nothing but conferences and newspapers and public speeches till one can’t hear one’s self think.” Exasperated, he lamented, “If only one could root one’s self in here among the grass and stones and do something worth doing, even if it was only restoring a lost breathing for the love of the job and nothing else.”
Usually not one to display his faith, Wimsey quoted from Jeremiah: “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” He conceded that, with his nephew in line to inherit the family title and all its responsibilities, Wimsey himself could afford to hold strong cultural opinions: “It’s very easy for me to care, because I’m not called upon to do a hand’s turn in the matter.”
He explained, “I am the usual middle-aged prig, with an admirable talent for binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men’s shoulders,” adding, “I’d rather live at peace and lay my bones in the earth.” And yet, Wimsey was aware of his part to play, as well as of his limitations: “Only, I have a cursed hankering after certain musty old values, which I’m coward enough to deny, like my namesake of the Gospels.”
Ten years earlier, in a short story, “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head,” Wimsey was in London at a used bookshop. While browsing, his antiquarian, if not antiquated, values came to the fore. As the tale began, Wimsey expressed interest in early printed editions of two classical Latin works, Vitruvius’ De Architectura and Petronius’ Satyricon. Vitruvius’ treatise originated in the decades just before the birth of Christ, but it influenced architectural styles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Satyricon was a novel from the time of Nero and found an echo in Jazz Age hedonism.
In 1987, Gaudy Night became a television miniseries. Edward Petherbridge starred as Wimsey, but the actor best-known for portraying Wimsey was Ian Carmichael. From 1972 to 1975, Carmichael appeared in televised versions of five Wimsey novels, and he also played Wimsey in adaptations for BBC radio and then recorded all the Wimsey novels as audiobooks.
Robert Fairclough, in his biography of Carmichael, This Charming Man (2011), observed that “In the early 1970s, when Wimsey’s and Ian’s values of patriotism and chivalry were regarded almost with disdain by an anti-privilege Zeitgeist, it was refreshing to see representatives of the upper and working classes bound together in a mutually supportive and respectful relationship.” He noted, however, that “the two left-leaning actors who brought Bunter to life didn’t share this view.” To them, Wimsey was the sort of toff they despised.
Leftist actors and Raymond Chandler notwithstanding, Lord Peter Wimsey endures. Even a hundred years ago, he was out of step with the times, but Sayers never meant him to be an ordinary guy. It says much, and little of it good, about the past century that Wimsey’s “certain musty old values” should seem to be such extraordinary qualities.