210–215: Striding Folly; Whose Body?; Unnatural Death; Stardust; The Postman Always Rings Twice; and The Man Who Was Number Four

Crime time, and three Lord Peter Wimsey books to get going with. The first is a collection, named Striding Folly after the first of the three stories it collects. They’re all gems, actually, looking at the titular detective from a multitude of angles. Wimsey is a detective with – ironically, perhaps, given his name – real depth of character, and these stories have a good go at plumbing it.

You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, “Well played – hard luck – you shall have your revenge tomorrow!” Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match.

The next is Whose Body? This gives us the wonderful description of Wimsey’s face looking “as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat.” In brief, a body has been found in a bath. It’s not entirely clear whose (hence the title), nor how it fits in with various other lawbreaking. Here we have some more excellent exploration of Wimsey’s character – his shell-shock, in particular, but also a serious exploration of the nature and notion of the amateur detective. “It is a game to me, to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt, and I want to get out of it.”

I have a very trivial mind. Detail delights me. Ramifications enchant me. Distance no object. No reasonable offer refused.

I suppose my relationship with Lord Peter is always going to be coloured by the fact that the first of his books I read was Murder Must Advertise, in which Wimsey is undercover for the bulk of the novel, and not doing his double-acts with Parker (the official detective) or Bunter (his valet). It affects how I read the ones, like this one – Unnatural Death – (and most of them) where he very much is dealing with the two of them constantly. Perhaps it’s just that I don’t quite view it as the default setting it so clearly is.

Anyway. My only actual comment about this is to do with this line: “His jaw slackened, giving his long, narrow face a faintly foolish and hesitant look, reminiscent of the heroes of Mr P. G. Wodehouse.” It got me thinking. This isn’t really a characteristic of “the Wodehousian hero” in general. It doesn’t describe Psmith or Ukridge or the heroes of the Blandings stories. It’s not a common trait in his one-off stories. It essentially describes, really, Bertie Wooster and his chums. Now, in 1927, when Unnatural Death was published, Wooster & co. were very much extant (“Extricating Young Gussie”, the very first story, was published in the UK in The Strand Magazine in 1916, and Carry On, Jeeves, the first main collection, was published in 1925). In another book, Sayers has Wimsey tell Bunter to drop the Jeeves act. And it all just makes me wonder about Wodehouse’s contemporaneous public perception. Clearly he has managed to shed any association with schoolboy stories. Sayers clearly regards the Wooster “type” as the dominant impression of the Wodehouse hero. It’s an interesting, unguarded, contemporary snapshot, and it makes me want to do some serious digging into the whole question. I wonder whether any of Wodehouse’s books ever gave Sayers a similar shout-out – I would find that unreasonably funny.

There is a proverbial saying chiefly concerned with warning against too closely calculating the numerical value of unhatched chicks.

There is an excellent film of Stardust, which is where I first encountered it. But this is a glorious novel by Neil Gaiman, who is a spectacularly good author. A little like Phantastes, actually, Stardust involves a sort of transition between the “normal” world and the world of Faerie. (In a way, I suppose you get a similar thing in Sandman, with the Dreaming, and also in “Coraline”.)

More crime! This time it’s James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The title bears, I think, no relation to anything that happens at any point during the book. The book itself is vivid and brutal – that 1930s American noir style which weaves sex and violence disturbingly close together. It bears similarities to If I Die Before I Wake, which I’ll be coming to shortly.

Do you not know that all celebrated detectives have brothers who would be even more celebrated than they are were it not for constitutional indolence?

Agatha Christie’s The Man Who Was Number Four sets Poirot and Hastings on the track of the “Big Four” international crime gang (the story also goes under the title The Big Four, and there are two slightly different versions – the originally serialised one, and the version first published as a novel). It’s more than just a country house murder; these are dangerous opponents who play for high stakes, and consequently the feel of the book is very different from many Poirot stories.

Striding Folly
Author Dorothy L Sayers
Published 1972
Pages 122
Best character Bredon, Peter’s son.

Whose Body?
Author Dorothy L Sayers
Published 1923
Pages 205
Best line “Most of us have such dozens of motives for murderin’ all sorts of inoffensive people.”
Best character Bunter.

Unnatural Death
Author Dorothy L Sayers
Published 1927
Pages 297
Best line “How wonderful Shakespeare is. One can always find a phrase in his work for any situation.”
Best character Parker. Wimsey says: “I make imbecile suggestions and he does the work of elaborately disproving them. Then, by a process of elimination, we find the right explanation, and the world says, ‘My god, what intuition that young man has!’”

Author Neil Gaiman
Published 1999
Pages 194
Best character Primus. “You are young, and in love. Every young man in your position is the most miserable young man who ever lived.”

The Postman Always Rings Twice
Author James M Cain
Published 1934
Pages 116
Best character Nick Papadakis.

The Man Who Was Number Four
Author Agatha Christie
Published 1924
Pages 171
Best character Inspector Japp.


3 thoughts on “210–215: Striding Folly; Whose Body?; Unnatural Death; Stardust; The Postman Always Rings Twice; and The Man Who Was Number Four

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