starlady: Raven on a MacBook (Default)
[personal profile] starlady
I am continuing to blaze through the Wimsey books. I'm just into the beginning of Have His Carcase now and adoring every second of it, but what's really interesting to me is how neatly the series divides at the halfway point.

Sayers originally planned the Wimsey books to end with Strong Poison, of course, which puts the eclipse at the end of Unnatural Death into rather a different light (har); in the original scheme, Unnatural Death would then be the midpoint, which sort of makes the fact that it is a very palpable nadir for Peter and for the workings of the legal system in general much more sensible. (See previous entry.) From that nadir, Peter goes only upward; he starts having female friends of the "possibly romantic liaison" type, i.e. aside from family friends and Miss Climpson, in TUatBC, and of course Strong Poison is a marrying book--not only is the title a pun on love and arsenic, but Freddy Arbuthnot and Rachel Levy finally agree to tie the knot after seven years (that sounds Biblical), and Peter himself forces the issue of marriage between his sister Lady Mary and his friend Charles Parker, to the happiness of all concerned. Not coincidentally, Freddy and Charles are both Peter's foils; the former shares the "silly ass" business, whereas the latter shares the "detective" business. The thematic intention of Peter and Harriet getting hitched at the end of the book is obvious. Beginning in TUatBC as well is when Peter starts showing the fact that the silly ass act is just that--an act--strategically, both to the reader and to other people. Like Eugenides in Megan Whalen Turner's books, he not coincidentally also starts to complain of people taking the act at face value accordingly.

There are other things that unite the five books, though. One is the theology references, though those slake off somewhat after UD; another is a certain symmetry amongst the crimes. Suicide by a rejected lover is a theme in both CoW and in SP; in the former, it's the truth, whereas in the latter it's a plausible theory. Not only that, but as Sarah Monette pointed out, women and their wills being a problem is an explicit issue in the last three books, but inasmuch as the deaths in the first two books are also caused by women's exercising their own romantic agency, there's a commonality in the question of women making their own choices across all five books. (In this, Harriet's refusing Peter at the end is not wholly unthematic either.) There's also something of a literal upward progress in that the first crime Peter uncovers in TUatBC, that of Roger's attempted fraud, is quite literally the same sort of crime that Peter uncovered in Unnatural Death, but could not actually prove because Mary Whittaker committed suicide. (There it is again.) Not only does Roger confess, but it's not the actual crime that's the real problem in TUatBC, and Peter is equal to the task of figuring it out, and securing evidence from Penberthy before he too commits suicide. (I do find the recurrence of suicide, both supposed and actual, rather odd, but I suspect this is a question of mores.) In SP Peter starts from a presumption of innocence, and finds the murder he knows to have been committed, as well as evidence to support it, rather than starting from a presumption of guilt.

And at the same time, it's easy to see how Peter needs to change, and how Sayers goes about that rather brutally. The foils are gone in The Five Red Herrings (which incidentally I take to be the summer of 1930, so six months after Harriet's release); Charles Parker appears in the middle of the book, but Peter himself undertakes the bulk of the investigation, without Parker, up in Scotland without any of his normal certainties to fall back on. He also starts doing more things; although he always does have the gift of gab, it's impossible to miss the fact that in the first five books, particularly in SP, other people are actually doing most of the legwork, as Miss Climpson does with her brilliant seances. She really was Peter's eyes and hands and tongue, but to be up to snuff to marry Harriet, it's clear that he needs to start taking a more active role in his own hobby. The reconstruction of the crime at the end of T5RH is a brilliant example of this; not only does Peter come up with a theory of the murder, he actively participates in reconstructing it and also thereby catching the perpetrator. T5RH is, among other things, a fresh start for everyone involved, though it also is very clearly marked by what has gone before, perhaps most obviously in Peter's rather tense conversation with Mrs. Farren about marriage and infidelity. His putting his own life on the line when he talks to Strahan on the cliff is also an obvious evolution, both of his seriousness and his willingess to get involved personally.

Sayers herself also starts pondering Peter's fictional qualities as part of this project of reconstructing him; there's at least one reference to him as a fictional character in SP, and some joking about it in T5RH, that prepares the ground for HHC, when Harriet explicitly summons up both Peter and her own fictional detective, Templeton, in the same thought after discovering the body. (Three layers deep and the dream becomes unstable.) I wouldn't be surprised as well if it's this approximate book that she decided to give Peter the middle name "Death," as it's also in HHC that the idea of Peter as Death becomes a running joke. I'm already impressed at Sayers managing to work "nine" into the title of the ninth book in the series. Back to Wilvercombe for me, Bunter.
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