This was a very good book. In it, Peter Wimsey first meets the love of his life, Harriet Vane, a writer of mystery novels. She is accused of murdering her former lover with arsenic, and Peter sets out to prove she didn’t commit the murder. His clock is ticking too – he has only one month to collect his evidence and find the real killer before the woman he loves is convicted and hanged.
The plot is fairly simple, but the characters are what makes the story shine, especially Peter. I’ve been re-reading this series chronologically in the order of publication, and in this book Peter is coming to life more than in any of the previous novels. We see him upset. We see him despairing. We see him unsure of himself, this super-clever man who could solve any puzzle and unravel any mystery. We see him so full of love, he is bursting with it. And we see and hear him babble delightfully.
‘If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,’ said Harriet, severely.
And yet, behind all his prattle on wide-ranging topics, seemingly unconnected and airy like soap bubbles, there is a keen mind at work, linking the dots, discovering the anomalies, establishing deep patterns. Sometimes, he pretends and camouflages like a chameleon to flush out his quarry, but more often he expresses himself truthfully, even though his opinion are not always conventional. Here is a snatch of Peter’s conversation with another character about an old lady:
‘... She’s been quite childish, poor old lady, for the last five years or so. A wretched life – dragging on like that, a misery to herself and everybody else. It always seems to me a cruel thing that one may not put these poor old people out of the way, as one would a favorable animal – but the law will not let us be so merciful.’
‘Yes, we’d be hauled over the coals by the N.S.P.C.A. if we let a cat linger on in misery,’ said Wimsey. ‘Silly isn’t it? But it’s all of a piece with the people who write to the papers about keeping dogs in draughty kennels and don’t give a hoot – or a penny – to stop landlords allowing a family of thirteen to sleep in an undrained cellar with no glass in the windows and no windows to put it in. It really makes me quite cross, sometimes...’
Some might not agree with Peter’s position here, but I see a man with profound respect for his fellow humans. I agree with him. The situation ‘animals vs. humans’ hasn’t changed much since 1930, the first publication of this novel. I wish it had. I wish Peter’s compassion for human beings would triumph in real life, just as his detective skills do in fiction. In Sayers’ novels, he always finds his prey, no matter how clever they hide their trails.
I enjoyed this book from the first to the last page and I’m head over heels in love with Peter Wimsey. I want to hear his ‘piffle’.