Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries (Complete Collection) Review

  • Series Title: Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries
  • Season: Complete Collection
  • Episodes: 21
  • Discs: 10
  • Network: BBC
  • Cast: Edward Petherbridge (Lord Peter), Harriet Walter (Harriet Vane), Richard Morant (Bunter)
  • Format: Color, Standard, NTSC, R1

Strong Poison

3 Parts
Cast: Edward Petherbridge (Lord Peter), Harriet Walter (Harriet Vane), Richard Morant (Bunter), David Quilter (Chief Inspector Parker), Clive Francis, Shirley Cain, Norma Streader, Patsy Byrne, Margaretta Scott

Based on the Lord Peter mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers, this series introduces Harriet Vane, a mystery writer who will eventually become Lord Peter’s wife. Strong Poison opens with Harriet on trial for her life – she is accused of poisoning her ex-lover with arsenic. Lord Peter walks into the trial to observe, sees her and immediately declares she is innocent. He seems to have no basis for his conviction. A friend of his is on the jury, and the jury ends-up being deadlocked and unable to come to a verdict. Thus the trial is concluded and the judge declares there will be a new trial in 30 days’ time. This gives Lord Peter 30 days to prove that Harriet is innocent.

The very first time Lord Peter sees Harriet in prison, where she’s being held pending her new trial, the very first thing he does is propose marriage to her. This seems odd as they don’t really know each other. Harriet, to her credit, ignores his proposal. She also seems confused by his belief in her. She initially provides little information in her own defense. She’s happy someone believes she didn’t do it, of course, but she lets the facts of the case stand and doesn’t explain anything (such as why she left her lover after he finally proposed marriage). She does tell Lord Peter that she believes the man who died committed suicide.

Part of the testimony that the jury focused on in their deadlock was a missing ten minutes: the deceased left Harriet, but rather than catching a cab immediately he didn’t catch the cab for another ten minutes, by which time he was ill and subsequently died.

Lord Peter and Chief Inspector Parker find the pub that he went into, and they even find a witness who saw the man dump a mysterious powder in a glass of water and drink it. This seems to suggest he did take the poison himself. He even made a remark, “This finishes it” or something to that effect, according to the woman owning the pub. You’d think this new evidence would be introduced immediately, but Lord Peter and CI Parker wait for the new trial. Also, the paper with the powder was, apparently picked up by the staff in the pub, and hidden beside the cash register. When the woman who works in the pub checks – it missing.

Lord Peter also goes to his friend, Miss Climpson, and gets her to place one of her typists, Miss Murchison, at the law firm handling the affairs of both the deceased and his rich elderly aunt. Miss Climpson uncovers information for Lord Peter and keeps him up to date on the activities in the law office. When Lord Peter goes to interview the solicitor, Norman Urquhart, he gets suspicious – Urquhart offers to show him the elderly aunt’s will, even though it’s a clear breach of client confidentiality. The will, which Lord Peter reads the next day, states that elderly aunt left everything to her lawyer, due to a severe argument with her family. Her estate is considerable, so it’s a very important bequest. This seems to indicate that the deceased couldn’t count on a large inheritance to relieve his financial pressures.

Wimsey takes Miss Murchison to a safecracker turned preacher that’s an old friend of his. This safecracker teaches her how to pick locks, and she breaks into the solicitor’s lockbox. She finds a letter that references a different will, but no will itself. So Lord Peter sends her boss, Miss Climpson, to the small village where the aunt lives. There, she befriends the aunt’s nurse, engages in some phony spiritualism, and finds the original will. In the original will, the old woman had given the solicitor her power of attorney while she lived, but left her property plus £50,000 pounds to her nephew. Unfortunately, the solicitor had lost £50,000 pounds playing the stock market and knew he’d get caught when the old woman died if the will he wrote was contested, or if the original will was discovered. This establishes a motive. It’s a good thing too because the police had helped the pub keeper and his wife search the pub and they had discovered the paper, which fell behind their cash register. The powder the victim took at the pub was only bicarbonate of soda.

Lord Peter then sets up a trap for the solicitor. He ends up getting him to admit that he had poisoned the omelet he served his guest, the deceased, and he wasn’t affected because he had built up a tolerance for arsenic. The police witness this confrontation. Harriet is freed, the crown’s case withdrawn, and a new case is made against the lawyer.

But, although Lord Peter had visited Harriet regularly for the entire month, and she had eventually opened up to him a little bit, explaining why she left her lover in the first place, she continues to refuse his offers of marriage. After she’s released, she doesn’t even talk to him but turns and leaves him in the hallway of the court.

Lord Peter’s fascination with Harriet and immediate attraction to her is, to be frank, rather weird and even hard to believe. I suppose it could be a case of love at first sight – but it seems odd that would occur in the middle of a criminal trial. Peter mentions following the case in the papers, but until the trial and resulting hung jury he doesn’t seem to have been directly involved. And Harriet, a woman who has had some success writing mystery novels, seems like a Mary Sue. And considering that Lord Peter has been described as Sayers’ idea of ‘the perfect man” the Mary Sue theory has some credence. I also was jarred a bit by the new cast, even though this series was made approximately eight to ten years after the original series. At this point, I like the original actors who played Wimsey, Parker, and Bunter better. But we will see – this was the first of three stories, so I will probably become used to the new cast.

Have His Carcass

4 Parts
Cast: Edward Petherbridge (Lord Peter), Harriet Walter (Harriet Vane), Richard Morant (Bunter)

Continuing on from the previous story, Harriet does exactly what she’s promised Lord Peter she’d do – she goes on a walking holiday in the English countryside. Harriet is on a beach at the seaside when she’s awakened. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep after her picnic and checks the time, then she sets off walking, alone, down the beach. She notices a man on a large rock who seems to be asleep, she calls out from a distance, warning the man of the coming tide, but he ignores her. She steps closer, and again she’s ignored. She climbs the rock and when she touches the body it becomes obvious that the man is dead – his throat being cut. Harriet then removes the man’s hat and gloves, picks up the razor nearby, takes off the man’s shoe and tries it against the one row of footprints, where it fits exactly. Finally, she takes pictures with her camera.

All this might seem quite incredible, after all, Harriet just escaped a charge of murder, “don’t touch the body” should be a familiar concept to her. But she’s worried the body will be washed away by the tide. She then spends over two hours trying to find a phone in order to call the police. Along the way, she bumps into a couple of the suspects for the murder – not that she knows it at the time. but at least by demonstrating in great detail life before cell phones, her earlier actions are explained.

The police arrive in due course, but the body is gone. To the credit of the local constabulary, they at least believe Harriet that there was a body. Harriet also calls a London newspaper and gives them the story. Lord Peter hears it from a friend of his on the paper and he heads to the village where Harriet is staying to work the case.

The first thing Lord Peter does when he arrives and sees Harriet is to ask her to marry him. She brushes this off. The two then spend their time trying to solve the case. It turns out the murdered man was a paid dancer at the hotel. He’s basically paid to dance with the older ladies who vacation at the hotel. This isn’t as odd as it first seems – ballroom dance was incredibly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and as a result of World War I there was a shortage of men. Also, many of the women who did marry in the ’20s were widows by the 1930s. That’s the case here, as a rich elderly widow had actually fallen for her dance partner. She later even says they were engaged to be married.

Much of parts two and three involve tracking down the few witnesses, anyone who can establish a timeline or might have seen something. The body is eventually found, weighed down with gold coins. Despite some contradictory evidence, the Coroner’s Inquest reaches a verdict of suicide. However, Lord Peter, Harriet, and the murdered man’s elderly lover all are convinced it was murder. The point is to prove that it was and who did it. Lord Peter and Harriet suspect the older widow’s son. He’s arrogant, pompous, judgmental – and just so happens to lose a sizable inheritance if his mother re-marries. There’s also a question of just who the man really was.

Part Four involves trying to break the son’s alibi, and locating any information they can about the case. They discover the man was lead to the rock near the ocean by a coded letter – which promises him that he is the lost heir of the Romanov’s (a claim Harriet says is ridiculous). They also discover the traveling barber, a Mr. Bright, who gave the victim the razor – he says, was in fact not Mr. Bright at all, but a “city man” and the husband of the woman who gave a partial alibi to the widow’s son. And finally, Harriet discovers the final clue – the reason this man would believe a story that he’s the Romanov heir – he’s a hemophiliac. This also explains why his blood was still wet and not sticky when Harriet found the body. It also means that the time of death is no longer certain. The local constabulary, Lord Peter, and Harriet Vane capture the son, and he’s charged with the murder. It’s Harriet who gently breaks the news to his mother.

Again, this story is slow – very slow, but I liked seeing Lord Peter and Harriet working together. They make a good team.

Gaudy Night

3 Parts
Cast: Edward Petherbridge (Lord Peter), Harriet Walter (Harriet Vane), Richard Morant (Bunter), Caroline John

Gaudy Night opens with Lord Peter Wimsey getting ready for a date. He meets Harriet Vane and immediately proposes to her over dinner. She, yet again, rejects him – and then the two continue their dinner. Harriet mentions she’s been invited to the “Gaudy” a formal event at her women’s college at Oxford University. It seems to be a type of college reunion. Harriet isn’t sure she should go, but Lord Peter tells her she should. As soon as she arrives at Oxford for the Gaudy she receives a message to meet the warden of the college. Harriet meets the warden and the dean who tell her that someone is playing particularly nasty, vicious, practical jokes – sending nasty messages, etc. The warden calls this behavior – a poison pen. But it seems worse than a “normal” prank, the messages are vulgar and obscene and seem to blame someone at the college for some dark catastrophe – referring to members of the college as murderers and damning them to hell, etc.

At first, Harriet is reluctant to investigate. She explains that she writes murder mysteries, she’s not a criminologist. But she’s convinced to investigate. That night someone slips into her room and leaves a note for her.

The next day, Harriet tells Lord Peter about it and he makes a few uncharacteristic remarks about women’s hysteria. Harriet calls him out on it and he apologizes, stating that he meant that in any small, closed society – such as a public school, or monastery, someone can be driven to act out. Harriet accepts this. Lord Peter then tells her that he has to travel to Europe, on foreign office business, but he will be reachable through the embassies. Harriet accepts this as well and returns to the college to investigate.

Most of episode one and two have Harriet investigating. There are additional attacks, and they seem to be escalating, but Harriet really isn’t finding any specific clues that would lead her to suspect a specific person. She then gets permission to study in the library at night and obtains a key. Once in the library that night, though, she removes a painting (of the previous dean) from its frame and hides it. She’s just sitting down to read, or study, or wait for an attack when she hears a noise from outside the library. Investigating, she’s knocked out by a stuffed figure of a person in a cap and gown. The next day, Lord Peter arrives. The warden invites him to a special dinner.

Lord Peter is the only man at the dinner for the college fellows (it being a women’s college). Everyone is telling stories, chiefly about academic integrity when one of the women speaks about someone in one of the other colleges who was caught lying on his thesis. He was thrown out, stripped of his MA, and disappeared. No one at the dinner knows what happened after that. This is, of course, significant.

Lord Peter does some investigating of his own, and Harriet keeps up with asking questions. After another attack, Lord Peter returns. We then get the classic – let’s gather all the suspects, review the evidence, and make a somewhat wild accusation, which gets the guilty party to reveal themselves – scene. Lord Peter then fills in the remaining history of George Armstrong, the man stricken of his degree. It’s not a happy one, especially as he had a wife and two children. It becomes obvious that his wife or one of his children is incognito at the college and raising trouble. It turns out to be the wife, who posed as a maid, and who blames a new fellow at the woman’s college, who apparently had some sort of connection to the accusations that she feels ruined her husband. Though, honestly, her husband’s alcoholism and bitterness at losing his degree due to his own cheating were much more responsible than the woman who happened to discover the cheating in the first place. After the maid is found and she makes a speech blaming all the college’s women because they aren’t married and raising children; Lord Peter again proposes to Harriet. This time she finally accepts him.

Gaudy Night is also quite slow moving, like all the stories in this series. I liked seeing Harriet as the sleuth for two-thirds of the story, but, in the end, it’s Lord Peter who arrives and solves the case. To Dorothy L. Sayers credit, though, Lord Peter isn’t presented as a dashing white knight, saving her damsel-in-distress detective, rather he uses his money and influence as a Lord and with the police to quickly find out who was expelled from Oxford, why, and what happened to him. It’s more finding a newspaper picture of the man and his family than anything else that solves the crime. And we do, finally, see Harriet agree to marry Lord Peter – after it was teased for so long. I really wish the series had continued on with one more story and had done Busman’s Honeymoon, but oh well. Throughout the series, Lord Peter and Harriet Vane do have a good relationship – both a working relationship and as partners solving crimes. Even with its slow pacing, this is a recommended traditional British mystery series from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction based on the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.