Pillbox

A dose of Strong Poison is highly recommended

While Author Conan Doyle and the inestimable Sherlock Holmes may have claimed the mantle of definitive detective fiction of the late 19th century, there is some doubt in the public mind as to which author and amateur sleuth pair were their successors. Many have tried; one only needs to visit the mystery section of a local bookstore or library to the see the results. However, despite years of imitation, the mystery novel has changed. Many tales of today have metamorphosed into gritty, extended episodes of CSI, and their leading investigators, though efficient, have characters that are often about as colorful as cardboard.

Where, then, does the reader hungry for an enticing enigma and an eccentric investigator turn? London, clearly. The address, though, has changed from 221B Baker Street to 110 Piccadilly, the home of Lord Peter Wimsey.

What immediately makes Wimsey different from Holmes and many other detectives is his position as a member of the nobility. His tastes are elegant, his manners refined, and his love of literature (and of quoting it) permeates each volume of Dorothy L. Sayers’ series. He is drawn to the workings of the criminal mind out of curiosity, as many of his counterparts are, but he has a much more difficult time justifying it. His brother, Gerald, the duke of Denver, finds his antics tiring, and many of his fellow aristocrats consider his sleuthing as more of an odd hobby to be humored than a serious occupation.

However, Lord Peter is not to be deterred. Whether the challenge is figuring out who left a corpse in an architect’s bathtub or clearing the woman he loves of poisoning someone, he constantly amazes and entertains with his dry wit, sharp intelligence, and eccentric perspective. Where Holmes had the Irregulars, Wimsey has the Cattery, a legion of spinster typists ideal for ingratiating themselves into espionage positions as secretaries; and while the Great Detective can hardly be mentioned without Watson, Wimsey has Bunter, his manservant, whose ruthless efficiency and decorum aid his lordship in both solving cases and staying presentable for polite society.

Both sleuths have their respective darknesses: Holmes requires the stimulation of morphine, and Wimsey’s memories of the First World War continue to haunt him.

Strong Poison, the fifth installment in the series, is truly a treat. The novel opens with the trial of Harriet Vane, a mystery writer accused of murdering her former lover in a manner exactly like in one of her books. Wimsey follows the proceedings and finds himself falling in love with Vane, even going so far as to ask for her hand in marriage if he can solve the case. He’s shocked to learn that she’s already had 40-some proposals, but still vows to save her from the hangman’s noose.

One of the beauties of Sayers’ work is the scattered literary allusions she includes. Readers with a decent command of French and Latin will enjoy Lord Peter’s asides, while literati will relish his frequent forays into Dante. Another joy of Sayers’ work is that villains are never apparent unless she wants them to be, and even then their motives often remain opaque at best. Anyone bored with contemporary mystery and hungry for a new master’s work to plunge into should consider making an appointment with Lord Wimsey and judge for themselves if he is indeed a worthy successor to Holmes. His first published adventure is Whose Body?