Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unnatural Death, AKA The Dawson Pedigree

A chance meeting with a doctor who feels there was something not quite right about the unexpectedly sudden death of an elderly cancer patient leads Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate whether or not a crime was committed.

When I read these books for the first time, this was the last one I tracked down, and one of the few where I figured out the answer before Lord Peter did, albeit only just before.  It also introduces Lord Peter's operative Miss Climpson, whose breathless style of letter-writing (with much underlining, capital letters for emphasis, and many, many exclamation points) would get on my nerves in real life but illustrates her character wonderfully in a novel. 

This is one of the two Lord Peter novels that have never been adapted for drama; of the other nine, Ian Carmichael did five in the 1970s, Edward Petherbridge did three in the 1980s, and the last started out as a play before it was novel and was made into movies a couple of times in the 1940s and 1950s.  Unnatural Death and Whose Body? have never been dramatized, as far as I and the IMDb can discover.

Not to give too much away, but one principal reason Unnatural Death seems unfilmable is that so much of the obfuscation depends on the detectives not realizing that two apparently separate characters are actually the same person: Parker and Wimsey meet one persona, while Miss Climpson only knows the other.  This works great on the page, but would be tough to pull off on screen without cheating; when Miss Climpson finally runs across the alter ego, she realizes who it is immediately, and if the same person played both roles, so would the audience. 

I suppose there could be other ways to confuse the issue, but there's another reason why TV and film might shy away from both these books: the casually open prejudices of the 1920s, when they were written.  There's no evidence that Dorothy Sayers herself subscribed to the anti-Semitism of Whose Body? or the racism against blacks in Unnatural Death; if anything, the characters who do make racist remarks are subtly ridiculed by the narration.  But it's still there all the same, openly using names we're not allowed to call people on TV any more.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clouds of Witness

Lord Peter Wimsey returns from an extended visit to Corsica to find his family's name all over the police reports: his sister Mary's fiance has been found shot dead, and their brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for the murder. Lord Peter and Inspector Parker attempt to find the real killer, or at least to clear Gerald, but they find the problem with the case is too many clues.

I have read this book as well, but what I really want to talk about is the BBC production with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.  Mark Eden played Parker, Rachel Herbert was Mary, and Glyn Houston played Lord Peter's indispensible manservant Bunter with wonderful aplomb.  It has the look of 1970s BBC drama, filmed mostly on unconvincing sets but wonderfully acted, especially by Carmichael and Houston.  One of the extra features on the DVD is an interview with Ian Carmichael, in which he disarmingly admits up front that he was always a good 20 years too old for the role.  Indeed he was, but he certainly had the attitude right!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Whose Body?

or, the Singular Adventure of the Man with the Golden Pince-Nez.  When the vicar's wife tells the Dowager Duchess of Denver that the architect supervising the reconstruction of the church roof has discovered the dead body of a stranger, naked except for a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses, in his bath, Her Grace promptly calls on her younger son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to leave off his hobby of buying rare books at auction and take up his other hobby of unofficial detection.  Meanwhile, Lord Peter's good friend Detective Inspector Parker is looking for the missing Sir Reuben Levy, who apparently vanished from his home overnight taking none of his clothing, not even his spectacles.  Although the two incidents are, to all appearances, unconnected except by the coincidence of having happened the same night, Parker and Lord Peter jointly investigate both.

It's interesting reading Whose Body? (which had a contemporary setting when it was published in 1923) so soon after The Attenbury Emeralds (set in the 1950s with a flashback to the 1920s, but published in 2010, and therefore a piece of historical fiction probably requiring a good deal of research).  Lord Peter's silly-ass-with-an-eyeglass persona is in full bloom in his first appearance, and he talks a good deal of nonsense; it's hard to picture this affable upper class twit in the situation Paton Walsh puts him in towards the end of her latest book about him, though his episode of PTSD here does indicate there's more behind that monocle than a vacant look.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Attenbury Emeralds

Bare days after Lord Peter Wimsey recounts to his wife Harriet the story of his first effort as a detective, the finding of the Earl of Attenbury's missing emerald some 30 years before, the current Earl comes to him for help in resolving a problem: the provenance of the emerald, kept safely in a bank vault, is now under dispute, as someone else is claiming ownership.  If it is the same emerald, how can that be proven?  If it has been switched for another, similar stone, who can have done it and when, and where is Attenbury's jewel?  And are the seemingly random, apparently accidental deaths that have occurred every time the emerald was removed from the bank actually cases of murder?

Hard to believe it's 12 years now since Jill Paton Walsh took the fragments of Dorothy Sayers' last, unfinished Lord Peter story and published Thrones, Dominations with the approval of Sayers' literary executors.  A subsequent Peter and Harriet novel, A Presumption of Death, also built on Sayers' own work in "The Wimsey Papers," short pieces published during World War II.  This new one, The Attenbury Emeralds, appears to be all Paton Walsh.  I've had mixed reactions to this kind of pastiche ever since I first ran across The Seven Per Cent Solution, but I think I've finally figured out how to enjoy them without fretting over the differences from the original works: I just regard them as fan fiction.*  And this is really good fanfic, let me tell you.

The mystery is intriguing and multi-layered, the characters are charming in just the right way, and Paton Walsh has a very nice touch with the tone: a light surface shading into darker undertones.  It has made me decide to go back and read all of Sayers' own Lord Peter stories.  Recommended for fans of the character.

*When Neil Gaiman was asked if his Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Emerald," made him a fanfic writer, he thought it over and replied that no, it made him a Hugo-Award-winning fanfic writer.  Love that man.