The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries Complete Collection Review

  • Series Title: The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries
  • Season: Complete Collection
  • Episodes: 21
  • Discs: 6
  • Network: BBC
  • Cast: Ian Carmichael, Glyn Houston, Mark Eden
  • Format: Color, Standard, NTSC, R1

This review includes spoilers. Although considering the novels were written in the 1920s and 1930s, come on – is a spoiler warning necessary? The format for The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries is of one-hour parts with cliffhangers forming a complete, serialized story. Each story is reviewed below.

Clouds of Witness

5 parts
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Glyn Houston, Mark Eden, Rachel Herbert, David Langton, Anthony Ainley, Charles Hodgson, Kate O’Mara

Clouds of Witness opens with the Duke of Denver, Gerald Wimsey, hosting a shooting party at a lodge in Yorkshire. His sister, Lady Mary, is in attendance with her fiancé, Dennis Cathcart, but the Duke’s brother, Lord Peter is traveling and not at the party. During the evening gathering, Cathcart is in good spirits and even tells one of the other men that he plans on asking Lady Mary to set a date for their wedding. One by one everyone leaves to go to bed, and Cathcart takes the time to read a letter he received in the evening post or mail.

Early the next morning, Cathcart is found dead, with the Duke kneeling over the body. Denver steadfastly refuses to provide a believable alibi for himself. Lady Mary initially lies at the inquest as to why she was awake. Lord Peter arrives after the inquest and with the help of his valet, Bunter, and his friend, Inspector Parker, begins to investigate. Realizing that his sister lied about at the Inquest – Peter investigates and even speaks to her former boyfriend. Since the boyfriend was considered unsuitable by the family (he was a communist radical and speaker) both Mary’s mother and her older brother the Duke had stepped in. When Jerry tells Mary he will cut off her allowance if she marries such an unsuitable person, Lady Mary breaks it off – and shortly thereafter meets and becomes engaged to Cathcart. But Peter finds evidence that someone had hidden a heavy case near the conservatory door (where the body was later found). He interviews some of Lady Mary’s friends in London and even talks to the old boyfriend. Meanwhile, Lady Mary feels guilty about her perjury, especially as things look bad for the Duke, her brother. So Mary goes to Parker, puts on quite a dramatic show, and confesses. She states she confronted her fiancé, but he had a gun, they struggled and the gun went off. Since there was someone in the bushes she panicked and ran off – making up a story. Parker realises this story doesn’t make sense either. Lord Peter confronts Mary, telling her he’s spoken to her old boyfriend. Lady Mary admits it – she had contacted her old boyfriend and asked him to come to the Lodge in Yorkshire. The two conspired to run away together and elope. She had sneaked through the house in the early hours, with her suitcase to meet him. When she saw her brother kneeling over a body she thought it was the old boyfriend, thus her exclamation, “Oh no, Gerald, you’ve killed him!”

Lord Peter also establishes through a great deal of evidence that someone else was there that night. Once they get the truth from Lady Mary, they realize it was her old boyfriend. Interviewing the boyfriend, they learn he was there but he didn’t see anything and he wasn’t responsible for the death of Cathcart. Lord Peter and Inspector Parker also find a valuable gold cat charm encrusted with diamonds. They trace it to a jewelry shop in Paris and find that Cathcart bought it for a lady. And he did so when Lady Mary was in Paris. But during the trial when the clerk who sold the pin is interviewed she swears the woman with Cathcart wasn’t Lady Mary. Lord Peter then discovers Cathcart kept a mistress in Paris. But the mistress had recently left to live with a wealthy man in New York. Peter travels to New York and obtains evidence from her that she had sent a letter to Cathcart breaking off their relationship. He sent a letter back to her but she never read the entire thing.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Denver is being tried in the House of Lords. It is like a normal criminal trial, however. Lady Mary is interviewed and admits to her earlier perjury, saying she had gotten up and left the house with a suitcase to meet a friend. She tries to decline to say who but is apparently forced to admit who her boyfriend was – because he is also interviewed. Likewise, the French clerk is interviewed and says the cat pin was sold to Cathcart but the lady with him wasn’t Lady Mary.

Meanwhile, everyone knows Lord Peter left New York by plane, but his plane is overdue. And the trial continues, with everything pointing to the Duke. Finally, the Duke’s barrister decides to call the woman the Duke was going to meet, secretly. It seems Gerald had discovered a woman and her daughter living near the lodge. The woman’s husband was cruel, vicious, abusive, and continuously threatening her and their daughter. Gerald had made plans that night to sneak out, cross the moor, meet the woman and help her escape her situation. This was the honorable secret he’d kept and was refusing to admit to. Lord Peter and Parker had also figured this out and were trying to find a way to get her to testify without endangering her life. With the Duke’s case in desperate straits, his barrister tries to get the courtroom cleared so the woman can testify in relative safety.

Just before she comes to testify, Lord Peter walks into the courtroom. He gets permission to enter new evidence. He reads the letter Cathcart sent his mistress after she dumped him. In the letter, Cathcart says that he will commit suicide. Apparently, he also was thinking of leaving Mary, despite his words, since he cared more for his mistress. Anyway, the Duke is cleared of all charges. But the woman from the home on the moors had been in called to the House of Lords, her husband waits outside. He tries to shoot his wife – but is prevented by Bunter.

In the end, Lord Peter “hires” her as his housekeeper for a new villa he’s purchased in Spain, provides her with a passport and documents for herself and her daughter, and even gives her an “advance” on her wages to help her with needed expenses. Essentially, her husband will be locked up for several months and by the time he gets out, the woman’s identity will be changed and her location hidden away.

Clouds of Witness is one of the best Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries because it hits Lord Peter so close to home. This is his brother who has been accused of murder and his sister who is acting very suspiciously. He happened to be abroad when the murder occurred even though he’d been invited to the shooting party – so although it’s not stated directly, Peter has a certain sense of guilt about the whole mess. Peter goes to see his brother in jail in York at one point, and when Gerald still refuses to talk gets angry at him, breaking his reserved cool because he doesn’t want to see his brother hanged. Though there is a lot of very reserved, cool, proper behavior on the surface, not only does everyone have secrets – because this crime hits so close, everyone at some point bursts out with emotion. It’s a five-part story, so it starts slowly but bit by bit the plot draws you in as Lord Peter, Bunter, and Inspector Parker run down clues and information, slowing building up a picture of what happened. But despite everything that occurred, it eventually turns out that Mary had decided to run off with her old lover anyway (though she changes her mind again) and Cathcart had decided he preferred to be with his mistress.  Also, it should be noted that Lord Peter is suffering from PTSD from his service in World War I (referred to as “shellshock”) and at one point in the story he takes a phone call and starts rubbing his head as if he has a headache. That night he has horrible nightmares, and Bunter cares for him. The next day, Lord Peter is just fine. Overall, despite its length, Clouds of Witness is a classic detective story, based on the novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, and this adaptation is highly recommended.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

4 parts
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Mark Eden, Derek Newark (as Bunter)

On Armistice Day 1922 Lord Peter is at the Bellona Club with his friend, George, to attend the annual Armistice Day dinner given by the General. George, however, is a bit drunk and in quite a temper. He’s angry because he hasn’t much money, unlike everyone else in the club, including Wimsey. George has been unable to keep a job due to his anger issues, fits, and his unrelenting PTSD (termed “shellshock” because: 1920s) Wimsey, who has his own issues from his war service, sympathizes with George and tries to get him to calm down. George then goes over to his grandfather, the General, to say something to him, but he discovers the old gentleman is dead, presumably of natural causes. A doctor is called in to check, who confirms the old man died of heart failure and that it was natural causes. Wimsey notices some strange details about both the body and the death but doesn’t kick up a fuss.

Soon after, it turns out that it is vitally important to find out exactly when the old man died. His older sister, whom he wasn’t close too, died on November 10th. It’s presumed the old man died on November 11th. But the sister’s will states that if she died before him, her entire fortune of half a million pounds would go to her brother – despite them not being close. But if he died first, her niece would inherit.

So the case involves trying to pin down the exact time of death for both – and while the sister’s death was witnessed, the brother’s death is a bit more mysterious. For example, though there are accounts of the old man leaving the club the previous night, and arriving that day – there are also suspicious events: even though it was Armistice Day, the general wasn’t wearing a poppy in his lapel (which is traditional), the man’s knee swung free, despite him being found in rigor – and the onslaught of rigor seems oddly timed, and even though he was found before a roaring fire – it doesn’t quite gel. Wimsey interviews everyone involved, uncovering the niece’s affair with the doctor – the same one to declare the old man dead by natural causes.

Since the time of death still hasn’t been pinned down, Wimsey and the family’s lawyers petition and get permission for an exhumation of the body. The autopsy reveals the general was poisoned. This results in more investigation.

As it turns out, the niece is more important in all this than it first seems. She had been duped by her boyfriend, the doctor, who convinced her that once her aunt died they would inherit, and he could use the money to start a research clinic – and eventually make a lot of money. The niece was innocent in that she didn’t think anyone would harm anyone. But it turns out that the Doctor, in trying to make sure that George and his brother didn’t inherit from their grandfather’s inheritance of the sister’s money, and it instead went to the niece, whom he could then exploit to get it for his “clinic” had administered an overdose of digitalis in his office, giving instructions to take the prescription later that evening.

Wimsey and Parker put all this together, then convince the doctor to write out his confession, and leave him with a gun to take “the gentleman’s way out” rather than drag the niece through a trial in which she’d be implicated even though Wimsey and Parker believe her to be innocent. It’s a rather grim end that fits the just post-war feeling of the story.

Murder Must Advertise

4 parts
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Mark Eden, Paul Darrow, Christopher Timothy, Fiona Walker, Peter Bowles, Peter Pratt, Shirley Cain, Caroline Dowdeswell

Lord Peter Wimsey is hired by the owner of a London publicity firm to investigate the mysterious death of one of the firm’s copywriters. Lord Peter also works with Inspector Parker to uncover the details of a drug smuggling ring, that seems to be linked to the advertising agency.

Lord Peter quickly realizes that the copywriter who died by falling down a staircase at the agency did not die purely accidentally. Rather, someone hit him with his scarab shot by a slingshot through the roof skylight. The scarab was his good luck charm, and usually with him or in his desk – so no one would think it odd if it was found, which it was by the cleaning lady. But even knowing it was murder, Lord Peter stays undercover, not only to discover who was responsible but to help Inspector Parker who is looking into a drug smuggling ring.

Lord Peter ends up attending a masquerade party given by some “Bright Young Things” and realizes he’s discovered where the drugs are going. The de Momerie crowd give lavish parties, drink too much, do drugs for fun, and probably sleep around a lot too. Appearing at the party as a masked Harlequin, he attracts the attention of Dian de Momerie. The two encounter each other a few more times, with Wimsey always keeping his mask on when meeting her to avoid blowing his cover. When Lord Peter attends a party given by his own friends and his mother the Dowager Duchess, he’s unmasked as the “mysterious Harlequin”. Lord Peter then says the Harlequin must be his cousin “Death Bredon” – the name he’s using undercover at the advertising agency. This re-enforces his undercover persona. It also gives Bredon the chance to figure out how the drug smuggling works.

A reporter is at a pub, celebrating getting his first real story, and talking with the other people in the pub. Later he shows up at Inspector Parker’s office, where he turns over a packet of drugs he found in his pocket after the night at the pub. Parker tells Wimsey, and they try to discover going on, with Parker sending many men undercover at the pub. Meanwhile, Wimsey suspects something is going on at the advertising agency – there is an account which demands a new slogan every week that is causing headaches. When one slogan is deemed “obscene” and unprintable by the local paper, it’s changed at the last minute. There’s a huge argument about the change. That week the de Momerie have no drugs at the party. Lord Peter suspects a connection. He also finds a list of dates and initials. Parker orders a search of a suspect’s apartment and finds a mysterious telephone directory with pubs checked off.

Eventually, Parker and Wimsey realise that Mr. Tallboy, one of the copywriters would design a new slogan based on the suggestion of the client. He’d send a note in advance to the drugs supplier with the initial. The note itself would be returned to the post office as “undeliverable” once the initial was noted, and a pub starting with that initial would be used to pass the drugs. Parker gets quite the arrest.

Meanwhile, Lord Peter had Mr. Tallboy meet him. Tallboy admits to everything, even the murder (which he did because the other copywriter was on to the drug smuggling and had threatened blackmail). He says he needed money to support first his wife, and later his wife and child. Wimsey is sympathetic. Tallboy pleads to not have his name dragged through the mud because of the embarrassment it would cause his wife and child. Wimsey, knowing that the head of the drug smuggling ring is after Tallboy says he will not say anything if Tallboy lets the drug smugglers catch him. Tallboy reluctantly agrees. He’s killed in a “road accident”, and the case is wrapped up.

It should be noted that even though all the copywriters at the advertising firm are men, there are three women working as typists and secretaries in the firm, even though this story is set in the 1930s. One of the subplots involves Mr. Willis being attracted to one of the secretaries and acting in an extremely jealous manner toward anyone else who shows her any attention. He’s initially very jealous and rude to Wimsey, leading Wimsey to suspect him. He’s cleared of suspicion, and the secretary agrees to date Willis. However, he does come off as being a bit of a jerk instead of “romantic”. This is also one of the best stories for seeing the friendship and partnership between Lord Peter and Inspector Parker. Parker is also now married to Lord Peter’s sister, Mary. Lord Peter and Parker really do get along well. Bunter for some reason, is mostly absent in this particular story, probably because Lord Peter as part of his undercover identity is staying at an apartment in Parker’s building.

Five Red Herrings

4 parts
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Glyn Houston, Michael Sheard

Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, go on a fishing holiday in Scotland. It’s Lord Peter so of course things do not go smoothly and there’s a murder the night after they arrive. The police at first think the victim, an artist named Campbell, died by misadventure – having stepped backward while painting and fallen down a hill and into a river. Lord Peter quickly proves it was murder.

It then turns out that Campbell was greatly disliked by the majority of the village, especially his fellow artists. He was loud, rude, mean-spirited and tended to cause trouble, so many people in the village had at one point or another threatened him, even to his life. Lord Peter and Bunter have to discover, which, of the six suspects actually went through and committed the crime – and which are merely “red herrings”.

As always, Lord Peter and Bunter uncover a number of different clues and establish and break down alibis. The people of the village are reluctant to talk, but the two detectives manage anyway – establishing a timeline of the murder and, eventually establishing the timeline that breaks the alibi of one of the suspects.

As it turns out, Campbell was killed more or less accidentally by his neighbor. He had returned home in the middle of the night, drunk and annoying. Instead of entering his own home, he burst into his neighbor’s home and started a fight. When the fight turned physical, he fell and hit his head. Discovering his neighbor was dead, Ferguson went to great lengths to conceal his part by taking the body and painting supplies to where it was found, painting a painting in Campbell’s style so it would look like he painted it, leaving Campbell’s car at the scene, and escaping by bicycle to the train station so he could meet his friends for an exhibition in another city and establishing an alibi. Wimsey is able to prove Ferguson wasn’t on the train he said he was on – which was the type that stops at every town and thus is slow, but on a later express – which, going straight through arrived in the city faster. It’s a complicated plot involving railway timetables.

This is probably my least favorite of the five stories in this set. The location filming is rather dull and muted, instead of colorful. There are some beautiful shots, but for the most part – the story doesn’t take advantage of the location. Most of the characters introduced for the story are annoying, and it’s clear the victim almost deserved to be murdered – almost. When Wimsey does put it together and Ferguson admits everything, clearing up the few points needed, it seems clear that the crime was more manslaughter than murder – though I don’t know if British law in the 1920s or 1930s recognized the difference. One thing this story does having going for it is that it shows the friendship between Bunter and Lord Peter clearly.

The Nine Tailors

4 Parts
Cast: Ian Carmichael, Glyn Houston, Mark Eden, Desmond Llewelyn, David Jackson

The Nine Tailors takes place over several decades and involves the theft of an extremely valuable emerald necklace. Lord Peter Wimsey attends a wedding on behalf of his older brother, the Duke of Denver, because his brother is ill and cannot attend. Lord Peter doesn’t really know anyone, but he’s happy to go to a big party and stay overnight before joining his regiment in the morning to serve in the war (World War I). During the evening, there’s a jewel robbery. The thief and his accomplice are caught, but the emeralds are never found. The aristocratic guests for the wedding are as appalled that the accomplice was the family’s long-trusted butler, Deacon, as they are appalled at the actual theft. Both men are sentenced to hard labor. Meanwhile, because the necklace was never found, the man who hosted the group at his stately manor pays out £60.000 to the owner of the necklace.

The war comes and Lord Peter, now a major in the army, meets and becomes friends with Bunter. When their trench is bombed, it’s Bunter who rescues Major Wimsey from the shelter where he is trapped. Seriously injured, Wimsey is sent to England to recover. When the war ends, Bunter arrives at Lord Peter’s apartment and asks him for a job. Lord Peter employs him as his valet and butler. Bunter also acts as Wimsey’s cook.

On the last day of the year, Bunter and Lord Peter are traveling by car, for a New Year’s celebration. Lord Peter’s car slides on some ice and hits a stone bridge. He and Bunter are unhurt, but the car is damaged (not to mention stuck). They walk to the nearby village of Fenchurch St. Paul, and obtain shelter for the night from the local vicar, and make plans to have their car hauled out of the ditch the next day and have it repaired so they can continue on their way.

The vicar is a nice old man, but the village is in the midst of a flu epidemic. the vicar casually mentions he is disappointed because so many of his bell-ringers have fallen ill that he won’t be able to accomplish a special bell-ringing for New Year’s. Lord Peter says he has experience with bell-ringing and offers his services. The vicar is delighted and arranges a practice session with handbells.

Meanwhile when Bunter asks, out of curiosity more than anything else, if Lord Peter had ever been to Fenchurch St. Paul before, Peter realises he has, this is where the jewel heist was all those years ago. It seems almost to be a different world. It’s established the emerald necklace was never discovered, one of the two men did escape from prison while on a work crew, but his dead body was found in a ditch on the road. Meanwhile, his widow had remarried and tried to make a respectable life for herself in the village.

A few days later, when there’s a death in the village, the vicar and the villagers are shocked to find a man’s body buried in the grave of the wife of the man who died. The man had wanted to be buried with his wife, and the discovery of a mutilated body causes quite the stir. With no hands, and a face bashed in after death, the identity of the corpse is uncertain.

Lord Peter, Bunter, the vicar, and the local police end-up investigating a number of things in the village – uncovering a number of clues, as Peter tries to find out what happened to the necklace. They eventually discover that it wasn’t Deacon the butler who died after his escape – he killed a random British soldier, changed clothes with him and took his papers. He is, however, noticed in a pub by the army and sent back to the front because his leave is up. In France, he’s wounded and wanders off. He’s found by a French woman who nurses him back to health. They fall in love and are married, but poor. When Deacon finds an old newspaper that features a story about himself being declared dead, he contacts his old partner in crime, Cranton, who’s been released from prison and returned to the same village. Cranton arranges for a false passport and other papers so Deacon can sneak back into the country under a false name.

Lord Peter investigates the criminal from the jewel heist and two brothers (Will and Jim) who seem to have something to hide. Although the criminal had arranged for Deacon to return to the village so they could get the emeralds – he never showed up. Meanwhile, Deacon’s wife’s new husband (Will) had encountered a man who had broken into the church. Not quite sure what to do with him, for some reason he ties the man up in the church bell tower. Later, his brother (Jim) finds the man dead in the tower and carries him to the churchyard – burying him in the grave where he’s later found. Jim, thinking Will was responsible, had deposed of Deacon’s hat and outer garments, as well as the ropes in a well – and chopped off his hands to hide the man’s identity. He’d also bashed in the face with a shovel. As Peter uncovers the idea that the two brothers are hiding something, and he and Parker get the truth from the convicted and released thief, Cranton, the two brothers are brought in to the police station. The brothers talk in an empty interview room – and Parker discovers that both brothers were covering up for the other, but neither committed murder. The one had only tied up Deacon and the other had buried the dead body and tried to hide his identity. These are crimes – but not murder.

There are ciphers sent through the post and Deacon’s French wife is consulted to get her side of things. Deacon’s first wife, now married to Will is also interviewed. Eventually, Wimsey discovers the emeralds, hidden in the church. But his success is short-lived. The recent heavy rains threaten to cause a local dike to break – which will flood the valley. Lord Peter and Bunter help with the emergency preparations. The church, being on high ground, will be the gathering spot and refuge. Peter’s out gathering a last bit of evidence and helping Parker when he crosses the bridge at the dike – he sees the dike collapse and the two brothers drown. He rushes to the church to tell Mary, the one brother’s wife. She is extremely distraught. Lord Peter then disappears. Later Bunter also disappears, while in search of his lordship.

Heading Lord Peter’s warning of imminent flooding – the church bells are rung in warning. It’s the vicar’s wife who discovers Lord Peter had gone to the bell tower to investigate it again and Bunter had gone after him. Both men suffer burst eardrums and considerable pain from being so close to the cacophony of the bells. Lord Peter explains later to Chief Inspector Parker that Deacon had essentially died by bell. The noise had been so loud and gone on for nine hours, causing unconsciousness and then death. Will had no idea the bells were going to be rung for New Year’s because the vicar had already canceled the bell ringing ceremony since he didn’t have enough ringers. It was pure chance that Lord Peter was able to make up the difference. Also, Will did not know that the noise of the bells was actually lethal. Meanwhile, his brother had found the dead corpse and somehow recognized it as his sister-in-law’s first husband, who was presumed dead. As he wasn’t dead, the marriage would be considered illegal and the children illegitimate. (The couple, in fact, do re-marry by special license, thanks to some help from Lord Peter and his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury).  Peter and Bunter recover from their near-death experience.

Another story that’s pretty long, but that has a great cast, The Nine Tailors is interesting in that it covers such a long period of time. It also does a good job of showing just how World War I messed up people’s lives and set them off track. The war had interrupted Deacon and his wife’s lives almost as much as the jewel theft and his subsequent imprisonment. The story also is somewhat interesting in that it is sympathetic to the other thief. Whereas Deacon is condemned by everyone as a servant who abused his position of trust and double-crossed his partner – his partner is forgiven for his criminal behavior once he serves his time.

This set meticulously films five of Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey books in great detail. I quite like Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter, Mark Eden as Parker, and Glyn Houston as Bunter (though he’s largely absent from “Murder Must Advertise” and replaced by Derek Newark in “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club”). These are very precise adaptations, and enjoyable to watch. Even though the pacing is at times slow, it drags you in. the puzzles are complex, and it’s fun to watch Lord Peter, Bunter, and Parker uncover clues one by one before they do put together the solution. Yes, there are the nearly stereotypical scenes of a guilty party being confronted, confessing everything, and being arrested or otherwise punished. But at the time, this was both a convention of detective fiction and not quite a stereotype. Sayers was a contemporary of Christie. In my mind, her books, however, had better characterization – both of her detective and his friends and relations, and of the guest cast of each book. This series has excellent guest casts as well. Although the format of multi-hour-long part stories might be a bit difficult to get used to, it’s worth it in this series. Recommended.