I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.
As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)
The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.
The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach not on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).
Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.
If you enjoy Lord Peter Wimsey stories even half as much as I do, please consider checking out my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.