A young man with aristocratic background and the hobby of detective investigation is introduced in Whose Body?, the first in the series of eleven books by Dorothy L. Sayers, which include the presence of Lord Peter Wimsey. The first novel gives the reader a preview of the character’s appearance, personality and methods of investigation. Generally, Wimsey is illustrated as a “brooding amateur detective, aristocratic man of fashion, talented musician and intellectual, wealthy collector of first editions” who, throughout the later novels, becomes “a recognizable man to legions of readers throughout the western world” (McGregor and Lewis 1).
It is visible Sayers considered the current course of events around her, as well as her own life, while forming the character; in fact, both of her novels selected “are saturated with references to her times and are, in a way, documents of them” (Kenney 111). For instance, the First World War had just ended when she started the creation of Lord Peter, whose direct participation in it influenced his life, too, therefore being mentioned in Whose Body?, as well as some other of the Wimsey novels, as for example explored by McGregor and Lewis; they state that “the war in some way affects behaviors in every one of the Sayers novels. At times its effect is on Peter himself, as he displays the aftereffects of shell shock” (204). His mother, Honoria Lucasta, mostly referred to as the Dowager Duchess, speaks about the effects of the war on him in the novel:
Peter always did have nightmares when he was quite a little boy—though very often of course it was only a little pill he wanted; but he was so dreadfully bad in 1918, you know, and I suppose we can't expect to forget all about a great war in a year or two, and, really, I ought to be very thankful with both my boys safe. (Sayers, WB 135)
Additionally, both the author and her creation were born between the Victorian era and the inter-war world, helping Wimsey to “comprehend the changing British culture” and therefore growing as a character during the progress of his appearance in the novels, “reflecting the developing subtleties of his creator’s enhanced understanding of her world. In the end, Wimsey was a most reflective man” (McGregor and Lewis 2). The character’s name, too, is very adequate; not only is it a sign of Lord Peter’s playful impulsiveness, which characterizes him, but also an “expression of Sayers’s whimsy” (Dale 37). According to Hitchman, “Wimsey was something of an anachronism when he was created” (76), considering the economic situation in England at the time; when comparing his family to the American millionaire Milligan, Lord Peter declares: “we've none of us any money—not what you'd call money” (Sayers, WB 65). Still, compared to the rest of England, Hitchman sees Wimsey as having “sufficient funds from undisclosed sources to indulge his eccentricities and hobbies, including playing a detective” (76).
At first, it might seem Lord Peter really is not taking the investigating hobby seriously, and also his mother has a distinctive opinion about it: “The Duchess was always of the greatest assistance to his hobby of criminal investigation, though she never alluded to it, and maintained a polite fiction of its non-existence (Sayers, WB 11). She does not think of him as a detective yet, even though the mystery dealt with in the first of Sayers’s novels is “far from being Wimsey’s first case”, and “he has already undertaken enough major investigations to acquire close friends and bitter enemies among the official police” (McGregor and Lewis 10). Nevertheless, investigating is not the only thing on his mind; besides that, he is a passionate collector of original book editions and as he states himself, “it’s a dreadful mistake to ride two hobbies at once” (Sayers, WB 13). This reading interest of his is also shared with Sayers; like her, Wimsey is a scholar and his familiarity with popular literature is expressed by frequent quoting of classical literature. In Whose Body?, there are several references to literary classics quoted by Wimsey; for example “O Sugg, Sugg, how art thou Suggified!” (39), refers to “O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene IV), or “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran…” (128), is a citation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.
The looks of the character examined are described as quite ordinary. Sayers portrays Wimsey as a “typical aristocrat”, not having “any pretentious good looks”, being “spoilt by a long, narrow chin, and long receding forehead, accentuated by the brushed-back sleekness of his tow-coloured hair”, with “long and muscular fingers” and “rather hard grey eyes”, (WB 37). The appropriate clothing is also an important factor of Wimsey’s characteristic appearance. In Whose Body?, quite long passages are dedicated to the choice of the right clothes, which does not only represent his personal taste, but also illustrate him as a proper detective:
Can I have the heart to fluster the flustered Thipps further - that's very difficult to say quickly - by appearing in a top-hat and a frock-coat? I think not. Ten to one he will overlook my trousers and mistake me for an undertaker. A grey suit, I fancy, neat but not gaudy, with a hat to tone, suits my other self better. Exit the amateur of the first editions; new motive introduced by solo bassoon, enter Sherlock Holmes, disguised as a walking gentleman. (Sayers, WB 5)
Also, he often wears a monocle, which accents his gentleman-like features and makes him look more serious in his work, although according to Symons, it emphasizes his “immensely snobbish loving seriousness” (114).
His actions, though, are more relevant than his looks; throughout the first novel discussed, Wimsey appears to be quite distracted and absent-minded on some occasions. His behaviour, often seemingly confused, could be the result of his genius mind working faster than with other people. There are long passages in Whose Body? with Lord Peter speaking about facts he has noticed about the case, repeatedly even speaking of more than one thing at once, making it quite hard for the people around him, as well as the reader, to follow his train of thoughts.
‘It's not an old chain — hardly worn at all. Oh, thanks, Bunter. Now, see here, Parker, these are the finger-marks you noticed yesterday on the window-sash and on the far edge of the bath. I'd overlooked them; I give you full credit for the discovery, I crawl, I grovel, my name is Watson, and you need not say what you were just going to say, because I admit it all. Now we shall — Hullo, hullo, hullo!’ (Sayers, WB 50)
Still, he is very devoted to investigation and excited about crime; “Parker, I hope you’re full of crime – nothing less than arson or murder will do for us tonight” (Sayers, WB 21). He even shows his admiration for the criminal to Parker: “…we're up against a criminal—the criminal – the real artist and blighter with imagination – real, artistic, finished stuff. I’m enjoying this, Parker” (Sayers, WB 35). This devotion is accented by his extraordinary detecting skills; from the very beginning Lord Peter shows the ability to notice important details which others have missed. Parker observes this fact and comments: “That’s the sort of question you would ask, straight off; it took me an hour to think of it” (Sayers, WB 26). Even though he always seems to be the first one to anticipate the importance of particular clues, in Whose Body?, he still asks for Parker’s opinion, despite already knowing almost everything, and then he simply states: “Well, I think you’ve got most of the points” (32). The detective methods of Lord Peter Wimsey also include the use of various useful gadgets; for example his stick which contains a measurer, a sword and a compass, or an electric torch disguised as a matchbox.
The language expressions Wimsey uses do not seem to correspond with the proper gentlemanly behaviour at first. With the two very first words of Whose Body? being “Oh damn!”, one can see that this polite nobleman can also be quite rude at times (9). Likewise, his examination of the body without any permission is judged as “unwarrantable interference” by Suggs, a fellow police officer, to whom Wimsey refers to as “a beautiful, braying ass” at one point (Sayers, WB 24, 25). Moreover, the language he uses does not always relate to the aristocratic manners of his high-class status, and rather reflects the verbal expressions of some citizens of the working class. One can indicate Wimsey seems to be a very eccentric lord, or at the same time a master of camouflage, able to maintain any kind of language to appear closer to the people he interrogated.
Furthermore, Lord Peter’s interactions with other characters in the introductory detective story are slightly different from the later novel selected; he often does not let other people speak, trying to shadow them with his wits. McGregor and Lewis remark that “Peter Wimsey is a dashed clever fellow, but he must take care to avoid his most common failing: trying to be too clever” (178). In addition, Kenney argues that the initial antihero, Sir Julian Freke, is “Sayers’s most despicable villain”, and his only flaw is being “one-dimensional” (109-110). Wimsey himself sees him as a man who “likes crime” and “gloats over a hardened murderer” (Sayers, WB 159). When examining him closely, he can see “a man taller than himself”, with “impassioned and inhuman face”, and “fanatical, compelling eyes” (Sayers, WB 166), suggesting a real threat to the genius detective, because of his brilliant, while also insane, mind. Freke is truly aware of his intelligence and after killing himself, he wants his body to be given to his hospital for dissection, “I feel sure that my brain will be of interest to the scientific world” (Sayers, WB 195).
The novel also introduces the character of Bunter, a loyal manservant, whom his Lord treats very fairly, thus breaking the traditions of strict class distinctions. Lord Peter appreciates Bunter’s contribution to his life, and his reasonable opinions about the case; he asks him to “stop fiddling about” and “join the merry throng”, while discussing the initial clues (Sayers, WB 25). Bunter, reciprocally, addresses his master with nothing but respect and stands by him constantly, appreciating the fact he is being treated equally on some levels of their relationship. Still, the difference in his position is explicit in Whose Body?; when wishing for something from Lord Peter, he refrains from asking directly and does not forget to mention that “[his] lordship is so good” (Sayers WB, 21), for giving him the opportunity to buy something for himself. This character develops even throughout the first of the novels analysed, to the position of an assistant detective, and his advanced photographic skills and bright deductions help Lord Peter a lot. Symons points out the resemblance of Bunter to Wodehouse’s character of Jeeves, who is also a manservant with similar relationship with his master; Sayers imitates Wodehouse’s protagonists to a considerable extent, in the language, relationship and comic manners (114-115).