In this book, Sayer introduced my favorite amateur literary detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The action takes place in England soon after the WWI. A famous financier in London suddenly disappears, and everyone wonders about it. Also an unknown dead body, naked except for a golden pince-nez, is discovered in a bathtub of an architect, and the owner of that same bathtub can’t explain how that body got there.
Into the middle of these two baffling investigations comes Peter Wimsey and unravels a complex knot of happenstance and malice, the knot which links together seemingly unconnected people.
The story is quiet and doesn’t move very fast, but the personality of the protagonist more than makes up for these small flaws. I have read quite a few cozy mysteries, but I consider this series one of the best, vying for the first place with Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries. And I absolutely adore Lord Peter.
Unlike many modern private sleuths, he doesn’t have any vices. He is simply a good man, a charming man, and a man of integrity. He does have some quirks, but they only endear him to the readers. For instance, he is rather chatty and he collects expensive first editions of books. As a younger son of a duke, he is rich and doesn’t have to work. Sleuthing is a hobby of his, and he is ambivalent about it. He enjoys solving mental puzzles and untangling people’s clashing motives and sophisticated lies. The need to exercise his brain drives him, but he hates sending the culprits to jail or to the gallows. His conscience and compassion are as much a part of him as his inquisitive nature and his sharp super-size brain.
The book hints at his past as the war hero and at his shell-shock, even though he is mostly recovered from it. Altogether, Lord Peter invokes a longing in me. Are there others like him out there, I wonder? I would like to have such a guy as a friend. Peter is alive and contradictory, and so are most of the other characters in this book.
Many of them would reappear in later books of the series: Peter’s former army sergeant and now his loyal servant Bunter; his friend, the police detective Parker; and his mother, the Dowager Duchess. Each one of them is a real person, with their distinct personalities, but all of them revolve around the hero, united in their regard for him. He is the star, and the rest are his satellites. And like them all, I love Peter.
I also like the fact that there is never a danger to the hero. The entire investigation is cerebral, focused on Peter’s thoughts and deductions, instead of gun shots and car chases. That is the aspect of most modern mysteries that turn me away. I dislike it when the detectives are risking their lives, or their beloved pets are kidnapped, or their families are threatened, and they have to make a bad-bad choice or accept a sacrifice. Dorothy Sayers managed to keep the tension high throughout her story without resorting to such cheap plot tricks.
The only thing that I didn’t like in this story, and I mean a serious dislike, is its vague anti-Semitic flavor. The disappeared financier is a Jew, and when the characters talk about him, their conversations reflect all sorts of hidden attitudes towards Jews. It might be the prevalent mood of the times (the book was published in 1923) in certain social circles, or it might be the author’s personal opinion, but in any case, it soured my reception of this otherwise excellent tale.