Wimsey Wednesday: an Introduction to a Not-Altogether-Unhealthy Obsession

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. You may recognize today’s guest blogger from the comments as “intexplorer”, but I just call him “Dad”. As you will see, I come by my love of both Dorothy Sayers’ work and alliteration naturally.

When I was a teenager, I was a voracious reader with tastes that were either very eclectic or not-very-discriminating.  I read science fiction, mysteries, adventures, history, political tomes, fantasy, and more.  When I first read Lord of the Rings, I remember being struck with how complex the sentence structures were.  Whereas the fiction of C.S. Lewis and Alastair MacLean were always easy reads and instantly accessible, J.R.R. Tolkien and, later, Dorothy Sayers, required a bit of literary recalibration.  Looking back on this, I think that my reading diet contained so much light fare that my brain was not accustomed to the meaty writing of a Sayers or Tolkien without some extra effort on my part.

Mind you, I’m not equating the quality of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy with The Guns of Navarone, but I guess it does follow that part of the genius of C.S. Lewis was that he wrote superb fiction which is instantly accessible to the average reader.

Dorothy Sayers created the character of Lord Peter Wimsey after World War I as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster.  Wimsey is a member of the English aristocracy, but as the second son, he has no title, few responsibilities, and lots of money.  So naturally he decides to devote some of his spare time and ample intelligence to solving the mysteries that spring up all about him.

Author Dorothy Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford (in 1915) and was a friend of C.S. Lewis and other members of an Oxford literary club called the “Inklings.”  Sayers seems to have been unlucky in love and, clearly, Lord Peter Wimsey was her perfect man.  He is introduced as a somewhat cardboard-ish figure in Whose Body, but as Sayers develops his world and character over the course of eleven novels, he becomes as real and interesting as any person I’ve not personally met; and more interesting than many people I have met.

The books are a marvel to read, with the mysteries being of secondary importance to the sense of time, place, and manners.  Most of the books are also available as audiobooks and some as dramatizations, with the former to be preferred over the latter.  The late Ian Carmichael read most of the novels in unabridged format for the BBC Radio 4 “Book at Bedtime” series during the 70’s and early 80’s—long before audiobooks became popular.  Carmichael completely owns the characters, and any of these books make an excellent way to pass the time during long car trips.  Many is the time we have listened to some—or most—of a Wimsey mystery on a road trip, and then been forced to spend the next week or so finishing the audiobook in one or two hour segments every night: they are that addictive.

The Lord Peter Wimsey novels can be divided into two groups:  Wimsey the bachelor, and Wimsey the wooer (of novelist Harriet Vane).  Perhaps coincidentally, the two Wimsey television adaptations are divided the same way.  Next week, I will review the better (and more recent) series, which covers three of the four Wimsey/Vane novels.  And then I will review the earlier adaptation, which stars an already-too-old Ian Carmichael.  This series is also excellent, but likely to be of more interest to those who share my not-altogether-unhealthy obsession with the Wimsey characters and series.

*Janie again here! For my take on Dorothy Sayers, see my post here.

Review of by Miss Pym Disposes (1946) by Josephine Tey

Bottom line: A quirky novel with a murder. A good read for fans of the Golden Age mystery era who are looking to add some more authors to their list.

Rating: Recommended if you are a fan of Golden Age mysteries.

Blurb:

Miss Lucy Pym, a popular English psychologist, is guest lecturer at a physical training college. The year’s term is nearly over, and Miss Pym — inquisitive and observant — detects a furtiveness in the behavior of one student during a final exam. She prevents the girl from cheating by destroying her crib notes. But Miss Pym’s cover-up of one crime precipitates another — a fatal “accident” that only her psychological theories can prove was really murder.

Review:

Reading something by Josephine Tey has been on my “to be read” list for a while – I’m a huge fan of other Golden Age mystery authors and she is ranked up there with Sayers, Christie, Allingham and Marsh (see a recommended reading list for those authors here). Tey has several standalone novels (as opposed to a series), so I picked this one because it was a) at my library and b) set in a college (I have a soft spot for the academic world).

It’s been a few days since I read this now, and I’m still trying to decide if I liked it. It is very different from a standard murder mystery, in fact, if I hadn’t read the blurb (which I think gives away too much), I wouldn’t have realized I was reading a murder mystery. You’re more than two thirds of the way through the book before anything unpleasant happens.

However, despite that, it was an enjoyable read. Miss Pym, the heroine, is a quirky but fun character, and the occasional humorous non sequitur reminded me a little bit of Douglas Adams humor. The setting in a women’s college and some of the themes throughout the book reminded me quite strongly of Gaudy Night (published in 1935 – just over a decade earlier), though it didn’t feel like a knockoff, just familiar.

As I said earlier, I’m not entirely sure that I liked it. I would certainly rank it below the other four authors previously mentioned. It didn’t follow the normal conventions of a mystery, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did take some recalibrating. I think I would read more Josephine Tey, but I’m in no hurry to run out and get another one. If we can borrow from the collegiate world, I would consider this a Golden Age 201 course – after you’ve taken Golden Age 101 (Sayers, Christie and so on) and want to pursue the subject, this would be a good next step. 

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

 

Summer Reading List – Golden Age Mysteries

I’m going to be posting some summer reading lists throughout the, well, summer. These won’t be in-depth reviews, just a list of “hey, these are great and you should drop everything and read them now!” books. I’m going to be doing it by genre, and for my first genre I’m picked Golden Age Mysteries. These are the mysteries that many people think of as the “classic” mysteries, typically written in the 1920’s or 1930’s. I love this era – so much so that they comprise the vast majority of the mysteries on my personal bookshelves that survive my frequent purges. So, here’s your summer reading list for Golden Age Mysteries:

  1. Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy Sayers. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Normally I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one (just because it’s not the first and I’m a bit obsessive that way), but I think it really is her best and if you want to give Sayers a try, this is the one to do it with. (See my review of Sayers’ work here.)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Probably my favorite Christie, and a great introduction to her work. See more reviews of Christie here.)
  3. Opening Night / Night at the Vulcan (alternate title) (1951) by Ngaio Marsh. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. I’ve only read a handful of Marsh’s works, but I’ve enjoyed all the ones that I have read. I’d rate her a bit below Agatha Christie, but still very fun to read if you like this genre. She was from New Zealand and worked in the theatre, so several of her works are set in the theatre as this one is (and also features a heroine fresh off the boat from NZ).
  4. Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. This is my favorite Allingham. Her work is a bit darker than any of the others I’ve mentioned, but this one especially is extremely well crafted. Some of her books I found the characters to be flat, but in this one they are more fleshed out.

The four authors above are considered the four original “Queens of Crime”, and reading one of each of their works would certainly constitute a good introduction into the golden age of detective fiction. Another author that I hear frequently recommended along with the four above is Josephine Tey, but I have yet to read any of her works.  So, as a bonus, I’m including:

5. Anything written by Josephine Tey. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. This is going on my reading list for the summer.

I hope you enjoy your first reading assignment from me – look for more to come!

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Review of the Lord Peter & Harriet Vane mysteries by Dorothy Sayers

Bottom line: Great mysteries, great characters, great writing. I cannot recommend these highly enough.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Review:

Gaudy Night is my all-time favorite book. Not just mystery, but book. The other three books in this series are all very, very good (though I’d rate Have His Carcase a bit below the other three – it’s slow in places). The depth of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, combined with their interactions, feel more real than any other characters I’ve read. It feels more like being in a room with two people you know well than reading a story about fictional creations.

Continue reading

A Handful of Agatha Christie Mystery Recommendations

Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors. That being said, most of her books are of the “read it and forget it” type of mystery. I think her talents tend more towards great storytelling/clever murder ideas (which she does better than just about anybody) than exceptional literary skill. You can go into just about any thrift store or library and pick up an Agatha Christie, knowing that odds are good it will be a really fun ride. As with many mystery writers, I find that once I’ve read one of her stories and know the solution, I’m not generally interested in rereading that book. However, these books below are some of my favorites, and I’ve enjoyed them over and over again. So, consider the following as “Strongly Recommended” and in no particular order:

Side note: for those of you who like to start from the beginning, or just want to try before you buy, check out my review of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first novel, and available for free on Kindle or free Kindle reader apps.

Click below to see list of recommendations:

Continue reading

Review of Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920) (Hercule Poirot Book 1) Free Kindle E-Book

Bottom line: A classic Golden Age mystery, by the Queen of mystery, although not her greatest work. The first time the world was introduced to the Hercule Poirot – the funny little man with the egg shaped head and impressive mustache.

Update: As of 7/1/2013 this book is no longer free.

Rating: Recommended IF – you are looking for a free mystery, you want to try an Agatha Christie, or you are a Christie fan and want to see where it all began.

Blurb:

Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot makes his debut in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” The mystery of the novel is the one of who poisoned wealthy heiress Emily Inglethorp and how did the killer get in and out of her locked bedroom. The suspects are many and Poirot must use Holmesian deduction to discover the killer. Mystery fans will delight in the first installment of Agatha Christie’s famous series of Poirot mystery novels.

Review:

This is Agatha Christie’s first Hercule Poirot mystery, and also her first novel. It was fun to see Poirot introduced to the world for the first time, along with his trusty sidekick, Captain Hastings. However, it was the first time for me to reread this book in a long while, and what struck me was how much it felt like a pilot episode of a tv show. If I’m trying a new show, I always watch the pilot first, and if there are even a few things I like about it, I’ll try the next episode. Often it feels like characters have little depth to them, and the action and dialogue haven’t quite melded into the right style yet.

That’s how I felt about this book – the plot twists felt a little contrived, and the characters (Hastings especially) felt a little one-sided compared to Christie’s later books. It’s still an enjoyable read, and an interesting mystery, I just didn’t think it was as good as some of her other books. However, given the dearth of free e-book mysteries, this is a good way to try out one of (if not the) most popular writers of all time. But if you liked it, even a bit, you must try some of her later books.

Available:  Amazon, Barnes & Noble

What did you think? Did you like the book?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.

Review of Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer (Inspector Hannasyde #4) (1938)

Bottom line: An easy-going murder mystery set in 1930s London. Worth a try if you’re a fan of Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh and want something new (especially if you can borrow it). I didn’t enjoy it as much as I usually enjoy a Christie or Marsh, but it was still a pleasant enough read.

Rating: Recommended IF –  it’s free and/or you’re in the mood for a light mystery to pass the time.

Blurb:

Who would kill the perfect gentleman?

When Ernest Fletcher is found bludgeoned to death in his study, everyone is shocked and mystified: Ernest was well liked and respected, so who would have a motive for killing him?

Superintendent Hannasyde, with consummate skill, uncovers one dirty little secret after another, and with them, a host of people who all have reasons for wanting Fletcher dead. Then, a second murder is committed, giving a grotesque twist to a very unusual case, and Hannasyde realizes he’s up against a killer on a mission…

Review:

This is the first Georgette Heyer book that I’ve read. I borrowed it as an e-book from my library (You can get library books without ever even getting off the couch! Best. Thing. Ever.) after reading some reviews that compared her to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers.  While it’s certainly in the same style (more so of Christie and Marsh), I don’t think Heyer is in the same league quality-wise.

I didn’t really enjoy her characters (except maybe Neville and Sergeant Hemmingway) – I found them irritating rather than quirky,  some of the dialogue seemed forced and clichéd, and I couldn’t get excited about Hannasyde, her detective. One of my favorite elements of the book was the murder itself – who committed it, why, and how was cleverly done, but the plot itself of how the detectives and side characters discover the truth was lacking.

That being said, it’s not bad as a “read it and forget it” mystery. There are enough twists and turns that it keeps your brain moderately occupied, you are never really worried that anyone sympathetic is going to end up having committed the crime, and it’s not intense – I was able to put it down and come back to it later (a rare thing for me with mysteries) and I didn’t feel the need to rush out immediately and buy the next book in the series. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for in a book.

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes

Side Note: Georgette Heyer wrote historical romances (think Jane Austen where the characters have more spunk) as well as mysteries – so if you choose to check out her work, make sure you know which brand of Heyer you’re getting!

What did you think? Did you like the book?

*If you use these links to make a purchase, Lector’s Books may receive a small commission. This will not affect your price or purchasing experience in any way.