What do you do when you find a naked dead body in your bath – well, naked apart from a pair of gold pince-nez… You call Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur detective and professional bon vivant. As he looks into the bizarre case, his friend is investigating the disappearance of Reuben Levy, a financier, who vanished from his rooms in the middle of the night – leaving all of his clothes behind. Is there a connection between the cases? And why on earth would someone go to all this bother?
New Author August continues… and yes, Dorothy L Sayers is a new author to me. Yes, before this month, I hadn’t read any of this author who is often mentioned in the same breath as Dame Agatha herself. So, what exactly have I been missing?
I picked this one for two reasons – I found it in a charity shop and it’s the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. On finishing it, I was a bit bemused. The Wimsey novels are often trumpeted as being classics of the genre – there are five entries (out of eleven) in the MWA top 100 mystery novels – but notably not this one. The reason that I looked is that I found this rather unsatisfying.
There is a lot to like here. A character like Wimsey, in the hands of a lesser writer, could be intensely irritating, but Sayers does a great job of making him sympathetic and entertaining. Some of the supporting characters at times seem a little two-dimensional, such as Inspector Sugg at the start of the novel, but they do expand out as the book progresses. One particular example is Wimsey himself as the reason for his devil-may-care attitude is revealed, giving him a surprising depth.
So far, so good. So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s the plot. It’s complete nonsense. It contains possibly the least surprising murderer ever – although I’m not convinced that it’s even been written as a whodunnit –but the behaviour of the murderer is bizarre in the extreme. Wimsey speculates a number of times that a master criminal is behind everything, and it is rather disappointing that no-one in the cast comments that the scheme is in fact nonsense. There’s a hint of a good idea behind things as to why the killer does what they do, but the impracticalities would have dissuaded anyone but the nuttiest of nutcases. And the explanation of the pince-nez is weak in the extreme – you expect the odd bits to have clever reasons, but it’s not the case here.
So, a series with potential that I’ll return to, but I was surprisingly disappointed with this book. Am I alone here, or is this a weak start to a strong series?