08 July 2020
People have commented about what kind of entertainment is appropriate - if appropriate is even the word - for this odd time. Do we embrace it, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, or Camus, or turn to escapism? Conventional wisdom has it that screwball was so popular during the Depression because it didn't reflect actual living conditions. On the other hand, during the polio epidemic, there was a brief vogue for the iron lung as a story element. Noir mirrors a specific postwar unease, which overlaps Cold War nuclear anxiety. Kiss Me Deadly or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Godzilla is the atomic metaphor writ large and reptilian.
I seem to be in retreat, myself, falling back on comfort food. Instead of post-apocalyptic, I set sail instead with Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.
Now, right up front, let's admit some of these are pretty lightweight. Whose Body?, the debut, is contrived and gimmicky. Clouds of Witness is stronger, mostly because the stakes are higher. Unnatural Death seems labored, to me, and basically unconvincing - although it introduces the estimable Miss Climpson. I don't think Sayers (and Wimsey) really hit their stride until The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and I think also this is because Bellona is to some degree about the effects of the Great War on Wimsey and his generation.
Sayers wrote novels of manners; contrivance is less important than character. Wimsey is himself nowhere near the foppish dilettante he affects to present - this is a Scarlet Pimpernel device. (You can easily imagine Leslie Howard in the part, deceptively languid.) Wimsey was a major in the Rifles, and was invalided out. There's a scary moment in Whose Body? when he imagines hearing German sappers digging below, and Bunter has to talk him down and put him to bed. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is the spine of the stories.
The other thing we have to acknowledge, which for some readers could be a deal-breaker, is that the language of the period singes the present-day ear. You remember that the books started in the 1920's, so astonishingly, they're almost a hundred years old. This isn't to apologize for Sayers' vocabulary, or rather, the accuracy with which she reports the vocabulary of the British class structure. She doesn't necessarily share their prejudices, but you doubt she's inoculated against them. Then again, Wimsey seems to be playing a part, 'Lord Peter' a kind of self-parody, so how much of this is affectation? It's hard to distinguish between the narrative conventions and Sayers' personal feelings. She herself was apparently quite astonished when somebody suggested anti-Semitic tropes in her work.
The three strongest books are the late-runners, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night. Murder Must Advertise because it's so effectively mannered - as a novel of manners ought - and because Sayers makes fun of her own successful career as an advertising copywriter. The Nine Tailors because the mystery is so elegant, the bell-ringing so exact, and the surrounding fen country so beautifully evoked. Gaudy Night is an outlier, granted, because it's of course Harriet's book, not Peter's, but the atmospherics are extraordinary, overheated and claustrophobic.
I also recommend The Documents in the Case, which is a standalone, without Wimsey, but the forensics reveal at the end is worth it all by itself.
The other thing about the language in the books, though, is how much it represents a world of the past. Not the late Victorian era of Holmes, but a time we think we can almost reach, from our own experience. Not that many degrees of separation. The period between the wars could be our parents, or theirs. You remember hearing an expression, as a kid, that made no sense whatsoever, because the context belonged to a previous generation. "Clean your plate," my grandmother might say, "think of those starving children in Belgium." Her reference is the First World War.
My personal favorite in the novels is widdershins, which means counter-clockwise, but Wimsey uses it in a particular way, "We do no harm in going widdershins, it's not a church." This puzzled me, until I unearthed a more sinister definition, invoking malign spirits. Originally, however, it seems simply to describe a cowlick or a case of bad hair. And there's the charm.