Wimsey and Brown Are on the Case

I was feeling in a mysterious mood recently, and felt like a nice vacation from nonfiction books into the world of detective stories would do me some good. I have been an avid mystery fan since my Great Uncle Earl, an interesting character, started giving me Agatha Christie novels as a kid and letting me read all of his old Ellery Queen Magazines. Some of my favorite mystery novels are the works of Dorothy Sayers. Though the mysteries themselves are often somewhat weak, she develops her characters in ways not often seen in the genre. Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, and Charles Parker feel like old friends, and the developing relationship between Peter and Harriet is one of the best love stories in modern literature.

I decided to fall into Sayers once again with her collection of short stories, Hangman’s Holiday, and I learned something very interesting. Sayers was no short story author. All of the things that make her mystery novels fun and entertaining are not workable in the context of a short story, and many of the stories in this collection seemed flat and lifeless. Rather than being works of literature, they were mere puzzlers without a lot of human interest. The first two of her Lord Peter stories were fun, but the following stories seemed like good ideas for novels that had ended up on the scrap heap and were resurrected in a much truncated short story format. The next set of stories in the collection focus on another detective, Montague Egg, who turns out to be a rather forgettable wine merchant. I never could bring myself to feel anything more than apathy for Mr. Egg. However, lest these not-so-great stories cause the reader to despair, there are two wonderful gems at the end of the road. The last two stories in the book feature none of Sayers’s serial characters, and are among the best things she ever wrote. They both have a very Alfred Hitchcock feel to them, and the first of the two stories, “The Man Who Knew How,” is one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read. These last two stories make the entire book worth the price.

After being left mostly dissatisfied by Hangman’s Holiday, I decided to go to my other fallback, G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown: The Essential Tales is a collection of Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories selected and introduced by author P.D. James. There is not a single dud in the whole lot. Chesterton’s stories overflow with life and imagination. Chesterton can create any mood or atmosphere with ease, from jollity to downright creepiness. It doesn’t hurt that Father Brown is an interesting and entertaining character as well. Though he rarely displays a Holmesian attention to tiny details, Father Brown understands people. After all, what else would one expect from a priest who spends all day hearing people’s confessions? The good father’s knowledge of human nature keeps him one step ahead of the criminals and makes him far more humane than any other fictional detective.

Overall, I enjoyed my vacation into detective stories and look forward to the time when I can start in on my copy of The Complete Father Brown to explore the rest of the career of Chesterton’s famous sleuth.

Hangman’s Holiday 3/5 stars
Father Brown: The Essential Tales 5/5 stars

Comments