My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Midway through Whose Body?, the first novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective’s friend and colleague, Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard, gives his morose friend a much-needed ass-kicking:
“You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy.”
This line is central to the themes of the first novel, and like much of Sayers’s detective fiction, it acknowledges the conventions of the genre in a metatextual fashion. Detective stories are strange animals. Their tone mingles witty repartee and comically exaggerated characters with the attendant griefs and horrors of cold-blooded murder, and the detective’s level of investment in the case can range anywhere from the monomaniacal wrath of an avenging angel to the mild interest of a retiree confronted with a difficult Sunday crossword.
The point made by Parker in the above quote encapsulates Sayers’s worldview in these books: yes, murder can sometimes seem silly, or be treated lightly, but evil is evil, no matter how society treats it, and needs to be rooted out in whatever attitude comes handy. Still, the first few Wimsey novels show Sayers exploring that spectrum of possibilities, trying to find the balance between the tragedy of human sorrows and the comedy of puppets. Thus, we get Lord Peter Wimsey, who banters with his Jeevesian butler and has a spyglass disguised as a monocle, but who also suffers from shell shock.
Clouds of Witness seems to aim for tragedy, creating a murder scenario that hits Lord Peter at home: his sister’s fiancée turns up dead, and his brother looks to be the most likely suspect. It all feels a great deal more personal than most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. But as it unravels, we keep running into qualifiers that make it less tragic and more comic. The sister didn’t love her fianceé, nor does he seem particularly deserving of any grief, and the brother is enough of a stupid prig that he almost deserves the ignominy that comes with his murder charge.
There are several ways Clouds of Witness could have taken a dark turn, and there’s one subplot that has a spectacularly bloody endpoint (though Sayers describes the carnage with a polite reticence that likely went a long way in making her novels socially acceptable). But the way each of the plotlines keeps returning to problems love—jealous love, forbidden love, socially-unacceptable love—gives the whole novel a sense of comedy, one doubly suggested by Lord Peter’s sidekick, Charles Parker, apparently falling for the detective’s sister. It’ll be interesting to see if that plays into future installments.
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