A Century of Women, Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Author: Barbara Comyns
Published in 1950

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.”

Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.

That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.

Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.

His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.

The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.

It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.

This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.

There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave

“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”

Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”

It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.

After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.

I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.

He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.

As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.

I think probably all women have a story like this.

Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.

So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.

A Century of Women, Dorothy Simpson

A Puppet for a Corpse by Dorothy Simpson

Title: A Puppet for a Corpse
Author: Dorothy Simpson
Series: Inspector Luke Thanet #3
Published in 1983

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A doctor’s apparent suicide sets off alarm bells for Detective Inspector Thanet, “a shrewd yet compassionate observer of aberrant human behavior” (The New York Times).

The Hippocratic oath binds medical professionals to a lifetime of helping fellow human beings. For a doctor to kill himself is not just to renege on that pledge, but to betray all mankind. When Dr. Arnold Pettifer is found dead from an overdose of pills and alcohol, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet’s first reaction is disgust. His second is suspicion: This, he thinks, is murder.

Nothing in Pettifer’s life would point to suicide. He had a prospering practice, money in the bank, a beautiful new wife, and a baby on the way. But when Inspector Thanet learns that Pettifer’s wife had taken a lover, he begins to suspect her—only to find that nothing about the death of Dr. Pettifer is as obvious as it may seem.

I picked up one of these Luke Thanet books for a couple of bucks at the UBS before Christmas – I am always looking for new classic mystery series, and this looked like a promising option.

This is the third book in the series I’ve read at this point. I read the 6th book, Dead on Arrival, first, and then I bought the second and third books because they must have been on sale, as I got them both for under $3.00 each, and the price has now increased to $6.50, which is more than I’m willing to spend. I read the second book, Six Feet Under, at the end of December, and then read this one yesterday. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the series at this point.

I haven’t found any of the books to be particularly difficult to figure out. I cottoned on to the solution in Dead on Arrival really early in the book, once a certain piece of information is imparted to the reader. Six Feet Under gave me the most trouble – I only figured out part of it, and not the most important part. Simpson definitely likes to divide the reader’s attention, and works hard to misdirect, which is only partially successful.

The books are set in Kent, England, in the fictional town of Sturrenden (interestingly, Thanet is the name of a district in Kent). Inspector Thanet is a bit cerebral, and is more-or-less happily married to Joan, with two children. His marriage takes up quite a lot of screen time, as he is grappling with Joan going back to work now that the kids are a bit older, and he doesn’t like not having his meals served hot and ready at his beck and call when he gets home.

Puppet for a Corpse was originally published in 1983, although it has a bit more regressive of a feel than the eighties – when I looked up the publication date I was surprised that it wasn’t the early seventies, given the interactions between Luke and Joan. I graduated from high school in 1984, and there was never any expectation between myself and any man I have ever been involved in that I would be his domestic servant. On the other hand, I suppose Luke and Joan are closer to the ages of my parents than they are to my age, and Thanet’s attitude was pretty much the same as my dad’s attitude was when my mom went to work after my brother and I had graduated from high school.

In terms of the mystery, I’ve read enough of these older police procedurals to have had an inkling of what had likely happened, although I didn’t quite figure it out. There isn’t a lot to them- it takes me about 90 minutes to read one from beginning to end. I’ll keep my eye out for them at my library/UBS, and would consider buying more if they went back on sale, but overall, they are in the “take it or leave it” subcategory of mystery fiction.

This books fits well into my Century of Women Authors, though, fulfilling year 1983

A Century of Women, Stella Gibbons

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

Title: The Bachelor
Author: Stella Gibbons
Published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

Title: The Crime at the “Noah’s Ark”
Author: Molly Thynne
First published in 1931

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’ll be blue murder here before Christmas!”

A number of parties heading for a luxurious holiday spot, are forced by severe winter weather to put up at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, a hostelry they will share with Dr. Constantine, a shrewd chess master and keen observer of all around him. Other guests include bestselling novelist Angus Stuart, the aristocratic Romsey family, a pair of old spinster sisters, and a galloping major whose horseplay gets him into hot water – and then gets him murdered.

Who is the masked intruder who causes such a commotion on the first night? Who has stolen Mrs van Dolen’s emeralds, and who has slashed everyone’s (almost everyone’s) car tyres? And are the murderer and thief one and the same, or are the guests faced with two desperate criminals hiding in plain sight in the snowbound inn? Dr. Constantine, aided by two of the younger guests, is compelled to investigate this sparkling Christmas mystery before anyone else ends up singing in the heavenly choir …

I really enjoyed this one! If you’re looking for a seasonal read, choose The Crime at Noah’s Ark!

Basic plot involves a group of people all unknown to one another who are snowed in at a country wayside inn. Emeralds are stolen, drunk assaultive men are murdered (and no one feels very sorry about it), and there is lots of lurking about and sneaking through darkened corridors. The main character is a likeable author, and there is a tiny bit of romance to go along with the mystery. I guessed a couple of the twists, and pretty much figured out whodunnit, but it was still tons of fun.

This is a very inexpensive treat – it’s $2.99 on kindle, and worth every penny. Kudos to the Dean Street Press for finding and bringing these lesser known golden age authors back into “print,” even if that print is pixels not paper – they have five other mysteries by Molly Thynne on offer, and I plan to read them all eventually. This is one of the best things about the ebook revolution!

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Freya Stark

A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark

Previously published December 22, 2015

Title: A Winter in Arabia
Author: Freya Stark
First published in 1940

Summary from Goodreads: One of the most unconventional and courageous explorers of her time, Freya Stark chronicled her extraordinary Travels in the Near East, establishing herself as a twentieth century heroine. A Winter in Arabia recounts her 1937-8 expedition in what is now Yemen, a journey which helped secure her reputation not only as a great travel writer, but also as a first-rate geographer, historian, and archaeologist. There, in the land whose “nakedness is clothed in shreds of departed splendor,” she and two companions spent a winter in search of an ancient South Arabian city.

Offering rare glimpses of life behind the veil-the subtleties of business and social conduct, the elaborate beauty rituals of the women, and the bitter animosities between rival tribes, Freya Stark conveys the “perpetual charm of Arabia … that the traveler finds his own level there simply as a human being.”

Ah, the end of the year challenge clean up! I read this one ages ago, but never got around to posting & now with the Back to the Classics challenge coming to end, I have forgotten most of what I wanted to say!

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I was looking forward to an adventure story written by a plucky Victorian lady explorer swathed in voluminous skirts. I wanted Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, but for real.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t capture my fancy as much as I had hoped. Divided into two sections: the Diary and the Journey, it was a bit dry.

The Diary section chronicles Freya Stark’s time spent in a small village called Hureidha, in South Yemen. Stark spent much of the time ill, and did get some interesting opportunities to interact with the village women, which was interesting. I was just hoping for something more.

The village itself looked something like this:

The second section covers her journey from the village to another location where she meets up with some other travellers.

I wouldn’t call this the easiest book to read, but it was very interesting. Stark is British, but approached her travels with an open soul. She was permitted to participate in much of the local native culture, and provides interesting descriptions of some of the rituals. She was also very descriptive, which provided me with really detailed mental pictures of the way the light shifted in the local wadi (which would have looked something like this):

I’m not sorry I read it, but I doubt that I’ll read Stark again, although I have tremendous respect for her adventurous spirit!

Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Title: The Voyage Out
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published in 1915

Plot summary from Goodreads: Woolf’s first novel is a haunting book, full of light and shadow. It takes Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose and their niece, Rachel, on a sea voyage from London to a resort on the South american coast. “It is a strange, tragic, inspired book whose scene is a South America not found on any map and reached by a boat which would not float on any sea, an american whose spiritual boundaries touch Xanadu and Atlantis”

My personal experiences with Virginia Woolf have historically been fraught. I want to love her – she is iconic, so important in the pantheon of women in literature and feminism that she very nearly stands alone. But she is also impenetrable, a cipher for which I, sadly, lack the necessary decoder ring with which to make sense of her. Her writing is achingly, heartstoppingly beautiful, and yet I find that I understand almost none of it.

It was with some delight, then, that I began reading her first, and most autobiographical, novel, The Voyage Out. Written in narrative style that makes sense to my admittedly limited brain (i.e., linear) it contains her trademark gorgeous language. There is so much in it to admire, as well. Rachel, the main character, is an interesting character – a young woman who has been sheltered from everything except music, the product of a strange upbringing in an oppressive society. One of the matronly characters says about Rachel:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and, until I explained it, did not know how children were born. Her ignorance upon other matters as important” (here Mrs. Ambrose’s letter may not be quoted) . . . “was complete. It seems to me not merely foolish but criminal to bring people up like that. Let alone the suffering to them, it explains why women are what they are—the wonder is they’re no worse. I have taken it upon myself to enlighten her, and now, though still a good deal prejudiced and liable to exaggerate, she is more or less a reasonable human being. Keeping them ignorant, of course, defeats its own object, and when they begin to understand they take it all much too seriously.

Woolf approaches feminist ideas obliquely, through several characters. Mrs. Ambrose, above, talking about the sheltering of women. Mr. Dalloway (yes, that Mr. Dalloway), talking about suffragettes:

“Oh, I’m entirely with you there,” said Dalloway. “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do; and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has the right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” The solemnity of her husband’s assertion made Clarissa grave. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re a suffragist?”

Or, this quote, from the young man who ends up as Rachel’s love interest:

“I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the women were doing inside,” he said. “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life.

This curious silent unrepresented life. This isn’t entirely true, of course, because women have been part of fiction since fiction was written, although their stories were primarily told by men. But, still, it is true, right? Women did not lead public lives, in the same sense that men did. Their lives were entirely private, lived out in the quiet, domestic domain. She talks a great deal about loneliness, about the way that people live out their lives in solitary fashion, even when surrounded by others.

The Voyage Out takes a turn late in the book, into something that, given that it was written by Woolf, I might have expected. But, I didn’t. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to spoil. But, for readers who struggle with Woolf, this book is a good place to begin.

Dorothy Sayers

Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers

Whose BodyTitle: Whose Body
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #1

Summary from Goodreads: The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder — especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

Whose Body is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Dorothy Sayers. Mrs. Sayers wrote ten Lord Peter novels, as well as short stories featuring her gentleman-detective between 1923 and 1937. Lord Peter ages in real-time with her stories, and they are contemporary mysteries set during the year in which they are written.

“Why can’t you marry and settle down and live quietly, doin’ something useful?” said the Duke, unappeased.

“Because that was a wash-out as you perfectly well know,” said Peter; “besides,” he added cheerfully, “I’m bein’ no end useful. You may come to want me yourself, you never know. When anybody comes blackmailin’ you, Gerald, or your first deserted wife turns up unexpectedly from the West Indies, you’ll realize the pull of havin’ a private detective in the family. ‘Delicate private business arranged with tact and discretion. Investigations undertaken. Divorce evidence a specialty. Every guarantee!”

In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh took up Mrs. Sayers’ mantle and completed her unfinished last Lord Peter novel, called Thrones and Dominations. She has since published three more Lord Peter books, including The Attenbury Emeralds, which actually reaches back to 1921 and tells the story of Peter Wimsey’s first foray into detecting. The Attenbury Emeralds case is mentioned in Whose Body, but the story is not fully (or even partially) told.

I bought all of the original novels over the Christmas holidays this year, as they were all on sale. All of the Open Road editions of the Peter Wimsey books have similar covers, all featuring Peter’s monocle as part of the image. I find the covers both clever and appealing.

The mystery in Whose Body is quite grim, actually, although the treatment of it is lighthearted (as is so often the case with “Golden Age” mysteries). It is a classic upper crust mystery, although the murderer is quite frankly a sociopath who conveniently commits suicide at the end – this is another common feature of Golden Age mysteries. The murders often dispose of themselves to avoid the sticky and lower-class legal process that will result from their being caught-out by our amateur sleuth.

There is light satire of the British pre-WWII social conventions and the relationship between Lord Peter (aristocrat) and his valet (Bunter). In Whose Body, Lord Peter has a recurrence of “shell shock” from his experiences during WWI, and is cared for Bunter, who is obviously very close to Lord Peter. As a random aside, their relationship rather reminds me of the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, which was taken from Tolkien’s observations of the relationship between batman and officer in WWI. One of the great strengths of this book is the touching, affectionate and convincing relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.

Also, Bunter gets some of the best lines:

“Yes, Mr. Graves, it’s a hard life, valeting by day and developing by night—morning tea at any time from 6.30 to 11, and criminal investigation at all hours.”

The next book in the series is Clouds of Witness.

Dorothy Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

Previously published March 18, 2014

Title: Clouds of Witness
Author: Dorothy Sayer
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Published in 1926

Summary from Goodreads: When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear.

After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder. The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

” my love swears that she is made of truth
I will believe her, though I know she lies”

The second Peter Wimsey novel begins with Peter on an extended holiday in Corsica, enjoying the sights and recovering from the events of “Whose Body.” His trip is cut short when Bunter informs him that his brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder.

You may remember the quote I put in my post about Whose Body, (and I swear that I did not know what was coming in this book), where Peter tells Gerald that someday he will be happy to have a sleuth in the family, saying cheerfully, “You may come to want me yourself, you never know.”

Now we know.

Clouds of Witness relies heavily on the coincidence, and a series of illicit nighttime encounters. I always love these English Country House murders where everyone is rambling about all night long, practically tripping over one another. That’s what we have here. Gerald literally trips over the body of Cathcart, our victim, at the same moment that Lady Mary, his now estranged fiancee, is coming out the door. Things look bad for the Duke of Denver.

Fortunately for him, Lord Peter is on the case.

There is a lot going on in this book. While the Duke awaits trial, Peter is questing about the country, the continent, and eventually, the world, looking for clues to explain who killed Denis Cathcart. He meets a miserable farmer named Grimethorpe whose long-suffering wife is indeed long-suffering. He discovers that his sister, Lady Mary, has been secretly engaged to a socialist named Goyle. An engagement that has been brutally broken-up by the Duke, who threatened to cut them both off without a shilling if the marriage went through:

“Monstrous!” said Miss Tarrant, shaking her head so angrily that she looked like shock-headed Peter. “Barbarous! Simply feudal, you know. But, after all, what’s money?”

“Nothing, of course,” said Peter. “But if you’ve been brought up to havin’ it it’s a bit awkward to drop it suddenly. Like baths, you know.”

(I love this quote. It made me laugh).

There is also a lovely courtroom scene, where Sir Impey Biggs stands for the defence:

The Dowager Duchess had once remarked: “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.”

On the other side of the table, we have Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General, for the crown. That name is pure awesome.

There is a lot of humor in this book, and a bit of silliness Sir Peter, ultimately, finds the necessary witness to determine what really happened to Denis Cathcart. I am not going to tell you here, so if you want to know, you will have to read for yourself.

In the words of Sir Impey Briggs:

“Since, however, by a series of unheard-of coincidences, the threads of Denis Cathcart’s story became entangled with so many others, I will venture to tell it once again from the beginning, lest, in the confusion of so great a cloud of witnesses, any point should still remain obscure.”

Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Originally published on March 24, 2014

Title: Unnatural Death
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Published in 1927

Summary from Goodreads: When a terminally ill woman dies much earlier than expected, Lord Peter suspects murder…

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Three days later, she is dead. Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

This was a very enjoyable installment of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter’s relationship with Parker becomes more collegial, and we are introduced to a new character by the name of Mrs. Climpson. I hope Mrs. Climpson sticks around, because she is wonderful.

The book begins with Parker and Wimsey having dinner at a club on a pleasant April evening. They are talking of murder, of course, and a young doctor interrupts their pleasant discussion to tell them a tale of a suspected murder most foul: an elderly woman who was quite ill, but who died so suddenly that the young doctor suspects foul play.

Unnatural Death is a lot of fun. Before Lord Peter can solve the murder, he must prove that a murder has been committed.

“This is the real sleuth—my friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. He’s the one who really does the work. I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’ Well, look here—if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a go at this. If you’ll entrust me with your name and address and the names of the parties concerned, I’d like very much to have a shot at looking into it.”

And he does, and of course, he discovers that the murderer has committed a near perfect crime, and for the basest of motives. The murderer in this book is quite a nasty piece of work, and before long, bodies are piling up like cord wood.

Lord Peter’s Daimler Twin-Six makes its first appearance in this book as well. For those of you not familiar with the Daimler, it looks something like this:

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Overall, this is probably my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries so far. I love the legal twist to the motive, the murderer is both clever and exceptionally cold-blooded.