TERRY GROSS, host:
The years between the two world wars are often called the Golden Age of Mysteries. One of the most endearingly popular writers of that era was Dorothy L. Sayers, best known for her "Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries." They were adapted for television in the 1970s by the BBC and shown on PBS. The first two of the mysteries have just been released on a new DVD, the "Lord Peter Wimsey Set One."
Our critic at large John Powers has seen them and they got him thinking about what makes these old-fashioned English mystery stories so eternally appealing.
JOHN POWERS: I've always loved reading mystery novels. When I was growing up, I'd spend the summer plowing through English ones with exotic weapons, murders in locked rooms, eccentric detectives and neatly calibrated twists; you know, the ones that blow your mind when it turns out that the postman did it.
One of my favorite authors was Dorothy L. Sayers. Although her plots weren't the cleverest, her hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, was - an amateur sleuth whose genius lay hidden beneath his whimsical upper-crust patois.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC turned her crime novels into a series of TV shows starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. When they were shown here on "Masterpiece Theatre," they became such a huge hit that they led PBS to create the series "Mystery," which has run for the last 30 years. The first two episodes of the Lord Peter series - "Clouds of Witness" and "The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club," are just out on DVD, and watching them now is like entering a nostalgic time warp.
The first episode, "Clouds of Witness," is typical. It begins at the Wimsey family's shooting lodge in Yorkshire. The fianc� of Lord Peter's sister, Mary, has been found shot dead in the night, and the police accuse Lord Peter's grumpy brother, Gerald, who refuses to say what he was up to at the time of the crime. Things look bad until Lord Peter comes back from the Continent along with his trusty manservant, Bunter, slyly played by Glyn Houston. He begins examining the case and questioning potential suspects, all of whom seem to have secrets galore.
Here, Lord Peter has just found what seems to be a key clue - a jeweled brooch shaped like a cat. He ruminates on his discovery with his friend and foil, Detective Inspector Parker.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of TV show "Clouds of Witness")
Mr. IAN CARMICHAEL (Actor): (as Lord Peter) You know, I've always thought those obliging criminals who strewed their tracks with articles of personal adornment were an invention of detective fiction for the benefit of the author.
Mr. MARK EDEN (Actor): (as Detective Inspector Parker) Well, live and learn, my dear fellow. After all, you haven't been doing this job very long, have you?
Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) The merest amateur, I confess. Whereas you, as a professional...
Mr. EDEN: (as Detective Inspector Parker) Take a fatherly interest in your ambition. So come on, you found it. What are your deductions?
Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) Well, it's a charm, sort of a thing a woman wears as a brooch; gold setting, all diamonds with two emerald eyes.
(Soundbite of whistle)
Mr. CARMICHAEL: (as Lord Peter) Parker(ph) stones too. Your turn, Old Parker Bird.
POWERS: When I first popped "Clouds of Witness" into my DVD player, I wondered if it was still enjoyable. After all, the Beeb's production values weren't the greatest back then. But the series sucks you into its 1920s setting with a brand of leisurely storytelling you no longer see on TV, and it's carried by Carmichael's Lord Peter. Although a bit too old and fleshy for the part, this canny old actor knows exactly how to play Wimsey, a man who can seem as silly as Bertie Wooster but is actually as shrewd as Jeeves.
Of course such a character is the purest confection, which is why such cozy English detective stories are mocked by literary critics and by fans of the hard-boiled crime novel. In fact, back in the 1940s, Raymond Chandler cracked that detective writers needed to take murder away from the upper classes; the weekend house party and the vicar's rose garden and give it back to the people who are really good at it.
Maybe so; there is something flagrantly artificial about the fictional world created by Sayers or Agatha Christie or Michael Innes - a world of country houses, loyal retainers and murder schemes so baroque that no one would actually try to pull them off. That said, such old-school British mysteries are hardly alone in stylizing reality. There's something pretty darn artificial about Chandler's own crime novels, whose hero Philip Marlowe is a sentimentalized knight errant; or in a grayer vein, about the police procedurals of Henning Mankell, in which every single crime is ripe with social meaning. And really, what could be more artificial than Elmore Leonard's dialogue, where every line just sings?
The fact is, lack of realism isn't the failing of old-fashioned crime stories; it's their point. The true pleasure of the Wimsey mysteries isn't simply that they let us sink into a romanticized '20s England. It's that they take us outside the chaotic swirl of modern society, where murder is a symptom of intractable disorder. They carry us to a fantasyland so intrinsically sedate and orderly, so conservative, that murder is an aberration. All Wimsey needs to do is follow the clues and find the culprit, and once he's done this, social order is restored.
You can call such plotting naked wish fulfillment, if you like, yet that doesn't diminish its power. You see, like nearly all the mysteries in this tradition, the Lord Peter stories satisfy something in the human psyche that neither bullying nor education can erase. They offer us a fantasy of perfect closure, a world where even bloody murder is little more than a brainteaser that can, and will, be solved.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue magazine. You can find his reviews and columns on vogue.com. And you can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a song by Lena Horne, who died last night at the age of 92. This recording was commissioned by Louis B. Mayer as a private recording for him in 1950.
(Soundbite of song "I'll Get By")
Ms. LENA HORNE (Singer, actress): (Singing) I'll get by as long as I have you. Though there be rain and darkness too, I'll not complain. I'll see it through. Poverty may come to me, that's true. But what can I say? I'll get by as long as I have you.
(Soundbite of music)
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