Howdy! I’m on vacation in Brazil for most of September, so I turned the tables on my readers and opened up the blog for guests posts while I’m gone. Loyal reader (and father) intexplorer continues his Wimsey Wednesday series. See here for part 1.
Last week, in my first ever blog post, I introduced Dorothy Sayers and her most famous literary creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. There have been two BBC drama series created from her Wimsey Murder Mysteries. We will discuss the earlier series, from the ‘70’s, next week. Today, we will discuss the more recent series, made in the ‘80’s. The three murder mysteries in this series feature Wimsey as the Wooer of Harriet Vane, played to perfection by Harriet Walters.
I’m starting here as these are the Wimsey Mysteries I first started watching. The production values are high, the sense of London between the two wars seems pitch-perfect, and the casting is mostly perfect.
To me, the mysteries are secondary to the ambience of the stories. I tend to find murder mysteries somewhat unsatisfying when judged on the technicalities of the cases in question. Whether it is Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the eventual solution to the mystery is generally something that COULD have happened, but is extremely unlikely to have happened.
This story starts out with mystery writer, Harriet Vane, on trial for the murder of her former lover. Lord Peter sees Harriet’s photograph in a newspaper and decides to go to the trial. Being a Lord, getting into the SRO courtroom seems ridiculously easy. Wimsey is instantly besotted and sets about proving that Vane is innocent of murder. He is able to gain time through the helpful obstinance of one juror, Miss Clemson, who holds out for a verdict of innocent. The fact that she runs Wimsey’s charitable affairs hopefully had nothing to do with her decision. Wimsey, with lots of help from the loyal Miss Clemson and his faithful Valet, Bunter, is able to eventually work his way through a series of clever encounters, establish the truth, and save the day.
This three-part adaptation ends with an unfortunate editorial decision. After Vane is vindicated, Wimsey goes to congratulate her (after all, she is the girl he wants to marry), and she coldly turns and walks away. My wife assures me that the book portrays this final encounter in exactly the opposite manner.
Have His Carcase
After her acquittal, Harriet decides on a walking tour through the West Country. Her attempt at escapism fails when she finds a blood-soaked man, dead on a rock on the beach. She notifies the police and then notifies a newspaper man as a means of gaining free publicity for her new novel. By the time the police arrive at the scene of the crime, the body has washed away and the coroner is unable to hold a hearing on the case because of a rule of English law called “Have His Carcase.” In the meantime, the newspaper man has notified Wimsey, who immediately comes along to offer his assistance.
A panoply of interesting characters is introduced as Wimsey and Vane try to unravel the apparent suicide, and Wimsey woos Harriett at the same time. Her refusal of Wimsey’s advances creates some helpful dramatic tension: she needs his sleuthing help but seems tired by his persistent proposals of matrimony. Wimsey and Vane are eventually able to prove that the dead man was murdered and to identify the murderer. Wimsey doesn’t make much more progress with his wooing of Harriet, but he is able to get her to agree to see him from time to time.
Have His Carcase translates to the screen very well and is, IMHO, the best of any of the filmed Wimsey Mysteries.
In this mystery, Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, at Oxford, for an alumna reunion and finds that a “poison-pen-poltergeist” has created an atmosphere of high suspicion and anxiety. The dons of the college ask Vane to investigate, because of her background as a mystery-writer and their desire to avoid a scandal. Vane asks Peter for help and they are eventually able to solve the mystery. More importantly, Wimsey also finally wins the heart and hand of Harriet Vane.
Unfortunately for true Wimsey aficionados, the producer/director did not successfully remain faithful to the core depth of the book. It is clear in the book that Harriett Vane is Dorothy Sayers, and the psychological self-exploration, combined with some intensely interesting characters (including a nephew of Wimsey, who is matriculating at Oxford as the story unfolds) make for a fabulously entertaining read.
This means that the more you know the underlying story, the more you will cringe at the choppiness and alteration of key moments. For the less familiar, there are some wonderfully satisfying glimpses of both academic and aristocratic life.
Bonus: Busman’s Honeymoon
The fourth and final Wimsey-Vane novel that Dorothy Sayers wrote is, Busmans Honeymoon, which was originally written and presented as a stage play. To my eternal regret, the BBC was not able to secure the rights to the play and was, therefore, unable to create a series around it. This is a major bummer.
In the play (and the thoroughly excellent book), Wimsey and Vane get married, go on honeymoon, and discover a body in the house Wimsey has purchased as a honeymoon present for his new bride. The exploration of their new relationship as Husband and Wife, including the necessarily-different dynamic with Bunter, the faithful Valet, are beautifully explored, and the mystery, while satisfying, is secondary to the marriage.
My wife and I learned that a theater company in Chicago was staging this play, and our not-entirely unhealthy obsession is such that we flew to Chicago to see it. To our chagrin, we learned that the company has done each of the Wimsey-as-Wooer mysteries in turn. To our delight, we learned that the daughter and son-in-law of some great friends from our time in Scotland were members of the theater company, and we randomly bumped into our good friends in the foyer of the theater, before the opening curtain. This inside connection gave us a chance to hang out with the cast afterwards.
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