Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.
A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.
The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.
While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.
My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.
The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.
Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.
Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.
I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.
One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.
So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.
On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.
Story by Story Notes
The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers
A man recounts his strange experiences when staying with a sculptor in New York that ended in him being warned that he was in danger of his life. Lord Peter steps in and provides the rest of the story. The question of what the sculptor is up to is not particularly mysterious (though perhaps this is because I am aware of similar ideas) but the tale is told with wit and I found the way the crime was detected interesting.
The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question
Lord Peter attends a wedding where he foils a robbery. The title is clever and there is some novelty in the clue that puts him onto the guilty party’s trail but I found the case a little dull. There are several passages written in French which may well frustrate those who don’t read the language. The punchline however is a hoot.
The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will
A young woman pledged to the socialist cause seeks help to ensure she inherits her rich uncle’s money. He has written two wills. The latter one benefits her but has been hidden away somewhere in his property. He instructs her in a note that she will only find it if she is utterly frivolous which arguably makes Lord Peter the right man to sort it out.
One of the more comedic Lord Peter stories, it does get rather slowed down by the inclusion of a puzzle that the reader is invited to complete themselves.
The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag
The police pull over two speeding motorists, one giving chase to the other to try and return a bag that had fallen from his bike. When they open it up they find something horrific inside. This story does not offer much opportunity for detection but it does feature a really striking incident.
The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker
A woman comes to see Lord Peter in his hotel suite late at night seeking help with an urgent matter. She reveals that a man has stolen her diamonds. She tells him that she knows the identity but adds there is a reason she is unable to send the police after him. A cleverly worked adventure. There is no detection at all but the way the criminal is caught is clever.
The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention
Lord Peter stays in a village where preparations are underway for a local notable’s funeral. Meanwhile a local resident sees a phantom carriage ride past him at night only to disappear, a feat that occurs again a short time later. This is one of the longest stories in the collection and it is, in my mind, one of the most successful.
The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran
Lord Peter is visiting a friend when they hear a scream coming from the floor above. A few moments later the neighbor hammers at the door asking for help, claiming a man has murdered his wife. I didn’t find this story particularly compelling, especially given its slow buildup, and I do think a sound-based clue is hard to follow. In spite of those grumbles, I did admire its solution – particularly with relation to the murder weapon.
The Biblious Business of a Matter of Taste
Lord Peter is travelling to France on behalf of the government to negotiate to purchase a formula only to find another man claiming to be him. Aside from a somewhat snobby remark about wine appreciation, this story was pretty delightful and boasts a fun revelation in the conclusion.
The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head
Intriguing idea about Lord Peter’s young nephew purchasing an old and damaged book only to find others trying to get hold of it. The word adventure in the title is right – there isn’t really any detection here and it unfolds more like a treasure hunt – but I did enjoy the story.
The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach
This story is yet another variation on the treasure hunt theme. In this case Lord Peter is asked to look into what happened to a rich uncle’s fortune who has died leaving very little in the bank. It isn’t too difficult to guess at the solution here and the tale drags on a little.
The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face
Lord Peter is travelling by train when he learns of a man found murdered on the beach in his bathing costume having had his face cut beyond recognition with a bladed weapon of some kind.
I previously read and reviewed this story as part of the British Library’s Blood on the Tracks anthology. The story is well-constructed and has an interesting ending. I still think it’s a good tale and might argue it shines even more in the context of this collection than it did in that.
The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba
To sum up my feelings in a word: ridiculous.
An attempt to craft an adventure story around a shadowy criminal organization. There is no detection here and several absolutely ridiculous twists and turns. The best of these (contained in a news report) adds a little intrigue but should have been saved for a better story.