The Necklace of Pearls is a short story about a pearl necklace given by Sir Septimus Shale by his daughter, its theft, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s finding of the necklace and catching of the criminal. It follows the general structure of a detective short story, giving us the setup, the crime, the production of clues, and then on the last page the solution, and as a puzzle, it is enjoyable.
One does not really read a Lord Peter story for a mere puzzle, and The Necklace of Pearls does provide some comedy of manners. The main point of comedy is the Christmas traditions of Sir Septimus. A brief quotation from the beginning of the story will make this clear:
Sir Septimus Shale was accustomed to assert his authority once in the year and once only. He allowed his young and fashionable wife to fill his house with diagrammatic furniture made of steel; to collected advanced artists and anti-grammatical poets; to believe in cocktails and relativity and to dress as extravagantly as she please;d but he did insist on an old-fashioned Christmas. He was a simple-hearted man, who really liked plum-pudding and cracker mottoes, and he count not get it out of his head that other people, ‘at bottom’, enjoyed these things also. At Christmas, therefore, he firmly retired to his country house in Essex, called in the servants to hang holly and mistletoe upon the cubist electric fittings; loaded the steel sideboard with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason; hung up stocking at the heads of the polished walnut bedsteads; and even, on this occasion only, had the electric radiators removed from the modernist grates and installed wood fires and a yule log. He then gathered his family and friends about him, filled them with as much Dickensian good fare as he could persuade them to swallow, and, after their Christmas dinner, set them down to play ‘Charades’ and ‘Clumps’ and ‘Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral’ in the drawing-room , concluding these diversions by ‘Hide-and-Seek’ in the dark all over the house. Because Sir Steptimus was a very rich man, his guests fell in with his invariable programme, and if they were bored, they did not tell him so.
This juxtoposition of modernist furniture in steel with an old-fashioned English Christmas is very hard to appreciate for an American in 2020. The traditional English Christmas is not my tradition, even in mutated form, and steel furniture seems almost the height of stupidity. We have some steel in our kitchen; an aesthetic whose aim is to suggest the appliances are fit for a commercial kitchen, where stainless steel is used because it is easy to clean and no one really cares whether employees have anything pleasing to look at while they work in oppressive heat. Other than that, steel is rarely seen in an American household, so it seems, rather than modern, merely in bad taste.
There is the further remove that people don’t really want to be modern any more. Even extremely modern things, like smart watches, almost go out of their way to at least partially disguise themselves in inconspicuous colors. In the 1930s, new technology was promising. In the 2020s, it’s commonplace and best known for its frustration, addictive properties, and general propensity for making people less social and less happy. (This is actually somewhat unfair, as technology does enable all sorts of great conversations to happen, but general regard is not always fair.)
The mystery itself is the disappearance of the necklace, and there are really two parts to this mystery:
- Where did the pearl necklace go?
- Who stole the pearl necklace?
The short story only concerns the first question. Lord Peter searches carefully, with Sir Septimus following him as witness. This turns up a small, fine pin, of the sort that an entomologist might use to pin a butterfly to a display board. Lord Peter asks if anyone has a hobby of collecting beetles, and when Sir Septimus says that they don’t, Lord Peter knows where the pearls are, and how they were hidden there.
This is where we come to the weakness of a comedy of manners in a short story—we have too many characters and with many of their interactions being governed by their rigid manners, we can’t really get to know any of them well enough to guess who stole the necklace, or why. To be fair to the reader, neither does Lord Peter, so instead he sets a trap. I think that the game here turns into who can spot the person falling into the trap first. The only real downside is that, since we don’t know anything about the culprit—just the name of the guy who shows up in the trap—it’s not very satisfying.
The real payoff is the way in which the pearls were hidden. The villain cut them from the necklace and used the pins to hide the separated pearls among the mistletoe. At this point, I should note that European mistletoe has white berries, unlike the holly which is commonly used in the place of mistletoe in America, and is sometimes confused for it because of that. It’s an interesting technique for stealing pearls in a house so completely made of smooth, hard surfaces that there is nowhere to hide things.