The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers: B+

From the back cover:
The body was on the pointed rocks alongside the stream. The artist might have fallen from the cliff where he was painting, but there are too many suspicious elements—particularly the medical evidence that proves he’d been dead nearly half a day, though eyewitnesses had seen him alive a scant hour earlier. And then there are the six prime suspects—all of them artists, all of whom wished him dead. Five are red herrings, but one has created a masterpiece of murder that baffles everyone, including Lord Peter Wimsey.

At first, I was telling people that The Five Red Herrings ought to be marketed as a sleep aid, because I had dozed off while reading it no fewer than five times. By the end, though, I ended up liking it a good bit.

One thing in its favor was merciful lack of wills! Each of the suspects had their own motive based on something the victim had done to tick them off, which was a lovely change. Another thing I liked was that everyone had their own imperfect alibi, which enabled the local police force (far more involved in the case than is usual for a Wimsey mystery) to each put forth their own theory, using the established facts but implicating someone different each time.

Wimsey seemed to know who the culprit was all along, and early on instructed one of the locals to conduct a search of the crime scene for a particular item. I didn’t get what he was after at first, though later thought I had. I was incorrect, but somehow ended up suspecting the correct person for the wrong reasons. Still, I enjoyed that the guilt of each of the others seemed plausible, and that Sayers somehow made it easy to keep all the varying bits of evidence straight.

The overall feel of the novel was a little more precise and clinical than usual, relying largely on train schedules and hypothetical time tables of how the crime was perpetrated. There was no trace of the romantic angst Wimsey suffered in the last novel. Additionally, Bunter and Parker, usually fairly active in Wimsey’s cases, appeared only briefly, and even Lord Peter was absent for long stretches of time as the locals pursued their own investigation. Some of these fellows were pretty indistinguishable, I’m afraid.

Although this wasn’t a characteristic Wimsey novel, I still enjoyed it. I believe Harriet Vane is due to reappear in the next one, so I expect a return of the angst, but she and Lord Peter also seem to be detecting in tandem, which sounds very appealing. Could this finally be the start of the really great ones?

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers: B+

From the back cover:
The Crown’s case was watertight. The police were adamant that the right person was on trial. The judge’s summing up was also clear. ‘The prisoner had the means—the arsenic. She had the opportunity to administer it.’ Harriet Vane was guilty. And Harriet Vane should hang. But the jury disagreed. And so did Lord Peter Wimsey—he had to prove that Harriet hadn’t murdered her lover with arsenic—and he also had to find out who had.

Alas, I was rather disappointed in Strong Poison. True, it addressed one of the complaints I had early on in the series and featured loads of personal drama for the investigators. I liked the turn Peter took here—in love and accepting rejection with grace and angst—and I liked Harriet, too, though there wasn’t enough of her. Miss Climpson and another enterprising spinster were also entertaining and made valuable contributions to the case.

But! I just about tore my hair out when another confounded will entered the picture. There was a twist involved that made it slightly different than a matter of mere inheritance, but just once, I’d like to read a Sayers book that mentions neither a testatrix nor a legatee! There was also a certain clue that, by the randomness of its inclusion, enabled me to immediately guess the method in which the arsenic was administered.

Despite not being everything I’d hoped for, it was still probably the best of the Sayers so far.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers: B+

From the back cover:
This sinister, engaging case takes aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey from London to Paris and then back, to the austere dignity of the Bellona Club. There, 90-year-old General Fentiman was found dead in his favorite wing chair by the fireplace. Oddly, his sister died elsewhere the same day, perhaps within minutes of her brother. Investigating the question of who died first, a critical matter for inheritance, Wimsey grows suspicious about vital rigor mortis evidence. Might it actually be a case of murder? Intricate, elegant, and delightful—quintessential Wimsey.

There’s a complexity to The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club that is missing from earlier entries in the series. Lord Peter shows a darker side, capable of manipulation or steeliness. He gets into two verbal arguments (both with great dialogue), one even culminating in a fist fight. I am liking this Peter! There’s also more nuance to his relationship with Parker and a bit more sophistication in the plotting. A harbinger of good things to come, methinks.

Some things, however, remain doggedly the same. Yet another will with a strange clause figures into the plot. I have lost track of how many times that has happened now. And, if the perpetrators had had their way, the money would’ve gone to a medical purpose, just like in a couple of the short stories. Sigh.

There are also a couple of leaps in the solution that don’t quite make sense to me. The most major is that the suspect had a big secret and somehow the victim knew it. But I don’t remember it ever being explained how it was known; that bit was just kind of glossed over.

I look forward to the result of these various improvements in characterization combined with a fresher motive. The first person to recommend Sayers to me named the next in the series as one of her favorites, so perhaps I shan’t have long to wait for something satisfying on both levels.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers: B

From the back cover:
In this delightful collection of Wimsey exploits, Dorothy L. Sayers reveals a gruesome, grotesque, but absolutely bewitching side rarely shown in Lord Peter’s full-length adventures.

Lord Peter views the body in twelve tantalizing and bizarre ways in this outstanding collection. He deals with such marvels as the man with copper fingers, Uncle Meleager’s missing will, the cat in the bag, the footsteps that ran, the stolen stomach, the man without a face… and with such clues as cyanide, jewels, a roast chicken, and a classic crossword puzzle.

These stories contain twelve disturbing deaths, twelve perplexing puzzles—and twelve inimitable Wimsey solutions!

I had varying reactions to the twelve stories included in this collection. Some of them seemed fairly anticlimactic and pointless, like “The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker.” In it, a lady’s jewels are stolen. She comes to Wimsey with one suspect. Wimsey engages the suspect in a game of cards, frames him for cheating, and blackmails him into returning the jewels. The end.

Others were fun primarily for their characters, or for Peter’s interactions with same. The best example in this type is “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head,” featuring Peter’s nephew, nicknamed Gherkins. I adored seeing Peter in an avuncular role, especially how he treated Gherkins with respect, and would love to see more of this duo in future.

There was only one that really surprised me, though I reckon it might’ve been obvious to others from the start. “The Bibulous Business of the Matter of Taste” involved two men presenting themselves as Lord Peter Wimsey—and one claiming to be his relation—to a Frenchman who was offering a poison gas formula to the English government. A wine-tasting contest ensued to determine which was the real Lord Peter. This was easily my favorite in the book.

There were a couple of recurring motifs, as well. In several stories, Peter was visiting someone away from home. Three stories involved Peter solving a hitherto baffling puzzle in a will, twice benefiting medical research as a result. Possibly the best known of these is “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will,” which featured a full crossword puzzle and its solution. I’d been looking forward to this one, but it turned out that reading all of the esoteric clues was kind of tedious.

All in all, I enjoyed this collection more than I thought I would, but I still prefer the Wimsey novels.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers: B

From the back cover:
The wealthy Agatha Dawson is dead and there are no apparent signs of foul play. Yet debonair detective Lord Peter Wimsey senses that something is amiss and he refuses to let the case rest, even without any clues or leads. Suddenly he is faced with another murder: Agatha’s maid. Can Lord Peter find the murderer and solve the case before he becomes the next victim?

Unnatural Death was another decent mystery in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Despite some fairly dull patches, I think I liked it a bit more than its immediate predecessor.

Good things include the introduction of Miss Climpson, a resourceful old maid whom Peter hires to do some investigation on his behalf, recognizing “useful energy and inquisitive power” of her kind. Her reports to Peter were generally amusing and I hope to see more of her in the future. I also liked that, although it was never explicitly stated, the victim seemed to be the surviving half of a happy lesbian couple who’d been together for decades.

I wasn’t so keen on the tedium of family trees or inheritance laws, however. And while it was unique to know exactly who had done it but not how, it didn’t do much to establish a sense of menace or urgency. It was more a quest for sufficient evidence to prosecute than a manhunt. Things did pick up a bit at the end, though. It also occurs to me that there wasn’t very much Bunter, though he was essential in sussing out the big twist of the case.

I’ve liked the Wimsey mysteries I’ve read so far well enough, but if they were all in this vein, I think I might tire of them eventually. Happily, I’ve got something like Gaudy Night to look forward to.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers: B

From the back cover:
Murder strikes too close to home! Lord Peter, noted detective, scholar, and bon vivant, is summoned to the Wimsey family retreat, which offers country pleasures and the thrill of the hunt. But when the prey turns out to be human and quite dead, wearing slippers and a dinner jacket, the thrill wanes. The victim is the fiancé of Lord Peter’s sister. And the accused? None other than Lord Peter’s own brother, the Duke of Denver. Despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence, Lord Peter is certain his brother is innocent and launches his own investigation. Can he find the truth in time to save the family name and spare his brother the gallows?

Clouds of Witness is a decent enough mystery, I suppose, but it won’t rank as one of my favorites.

I find it difficult to nail down a precise flaw that prompts my lack of enthusiasm, but I think it’s personal drama for the investigators (as in P. D. James or Elizabeth George) that I am missing, and I know I oughtn’t expect that from Sayers. The investigation is very clue-driven, and includes a few lucky coincidences. They didn’t bother me as much as in Tey’s books, but I do wonder whether Whose Body? was similar and I just didn’t notice it.

The best part about Sayers is that it’s often quite amusing, not just the little remarks that people make but also the way Peter’s quirks are dealt with. I especially appreciated a scene where he punctuates his words with little digs into his pipe, and the drunken epilogue was also cute. Less cute was Peter’s miraculous recovery from a gunshot wound to the shoulder that’s never mentioned again, even when he is hauled bodily out of a bog by a rope under his armpits a mere four days later. Oopsies.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers: A-

From the back cover:
The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder—especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

This is a reread of a book I last read in 2002 and, for some reason, did not enjoy particularly much at the time. I liked it quite well this time around, I’m glad to say, even though I still remembered the identity of the culprit and found the mystery itself to not be as interesting as Lord Peter and his cautious friend from the Yard, Parker.

I particularly liked a conversation between the two of them regarding Peter’s view of detection as a game, at which he feels he ought to be sporting and congratulate his quarry (once caught) on providing good chase rather than be the instrument of their apprehension and subsequent punishment.

Whose Body? was as far as I got in 2002, and this solid start leaves me happily anticipating continuing on into uncharted territory.