Lord Peter Wimsey and the Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker, first published as Beyond the Reach of the Law in Volume 61 of Pearson’s magazine, in February of 1926 (according to this discussion of the bridge talk in it), is a curious Lord Peter Wimsey story in which there isn’t any mystery.

The story begins with a Mrs. Ruyslaender, who happens to see Lord Peter’s name in the hotel book of a hotel she is spending the night at. She knocks on his door and asks for help. It turns out that her husband had given her a diamond necklace and it was stolen by a distant relative of her husband, a Mr. Paul Melville. He also stole a portrait with names and a very indiscreet inscription. The portrait plus incriminating inscription was of a man she had had cheated on her husband with a few years ago. He’s now married to someone else. If the police were to get involved, both the necklace and the portrait would be found, her husband would find out about the affair, he would divorce her, and what’s worse from her perspective is that her ex-lover would be ruined. Though she hates him and would like him to be ruined, she couldn’t bear to be the means of his ruination.

For some reason Lord Peter agrees to help her get the diamond necklace and the portrait back discreetly, so as to avoid scandal. This is such an unsympathetic case that I wonder whether the Victorian (and post-victorian) horror of blackmail isn’t partially an invention of detective stories in order to justify plots. In this case a woman who cheated on her husband holds on to a terribly incriminating piece of evidence after coming to hate the man with whom she adulterated her marriage. She then actually put it into the clutches of a man she didn’t trust because she kept the piece of evidence in a hidden drawer in her jewelry box. A jewelry box which was actually her husband’s and so the knowledge of the secret compartment was in her husband’s family. I rather wonder that Lord Peter didn’t tell her to make up whatever story she could and deal with the consequences.

I suppose what makes no sense to me in the Victorian and post-Victorian stories of blackmail is that the people in them are horrified at the blackmail but think nothing whatever of the adultery (or perhaps more often, fornication). Blackmail is bad, but it only works in a society which disapproves of the action the person is being blackmailed for. If that’s the case, we should see some of that disapproval. Things are unbalanced without it.

Anyway, Lord Peter then cultivates the acquaintance of Melville and frames him, in front of witnesses, for cheating at cards. In particular, Lord Peter uses his card sharping skills we didn’t know he had in order to give Melville a run of extraordinary luck, then uses his sleight-of-hand skills we didn’t know he had in order to plant an ace up Melville’s sleeve and make it fall out in front of those witnesses.

He then blackmails Melville into returning the diamond and the portrait, then leaving the club. He then goes to the witnesses (who are friends of his) and asks them what they think of blackmail, and they both remark in one fashion or another that it’s the worst crime in the world because the law can’t touch it. Sir Impey Biggs, in particular, mentions that he has always refused to represent a blackmailer and has never consented to prosecute someone who murdered a blackmailer. Lord Peter then demonstrates his card sharping ability as well as his sleight-of-hand ability to his friends, and asks them not to mention anything about the events of the evening because there are some crimes the law cannot reach.

I don’t know what to make of this story. It’s neither a mystery nor an adventure; to some degree it’s just giving Lord Peter a super-power in a one-off fashion. (At least, I cannot recall another time when Lord Peter was a card sharp.) Indeed, the number of skills Lord Peter keeps in practice in is rather astounding, if one takes all of these stories as meant to be simultaneously true.

I’m not sure how much they are meant this way, actually. When Dorothy L. Sayers was dealing with trying to turn Lord Peter into a fleshed out character in the aftermath of Harriet Vane refusing to marry a charicature, Ms. Sayers mentioned having as raw materials the “random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots” (Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame).

I don’t want to accuse Ms. Sayers of careless workmanship, at least any more than she accuses herself of it, but at the same time I think it fair to say that this was an early Lord Peter story, coming only three years after the introduction of Lord Peter in Whose Body? It seems that, during this early period, she didn’t take the detective story as seriously, or at least she didn’t take the short stories as seriously. To be fair she set out to write Whose Body? as more of a novel and less of a conventional detective story, but even she said that in retrospect it was “conventional to the last degree”. She attributes this to a person not being able to write a novel unless they have something to say about life, and she had nothing to say because at that point in her life she knew nothing. I actually suspect, having written two detective novels and working on a third, that it may be as much that the technical aspect of writing a detective story can become very consuming. Though fundamentally unrealistic in that crimes are rarely cleverly committed or afterwards disguised by complicated circumstances, detective stories are, after that conceit, highly realistic stories. It’s not easy to make the whole thing work out naturally and with internal consistency. Worse, from the author’s perspective, is that the detectives have some very determined ideas of how to proceed (characters can only ever be partially controlled by their author) and this has a tendency to put the plot on rails. The author can bend these rails, but it takes a great deal of effort to do it in such a way that the train doesn’t derail. This is the origin of a great many stupid lies told by people who are not guilty but complicate matters; if the author needs the detective to go talk to someone, some poor character has to be the one to point him in that direction.

This, incidentally, is where we can see part of the genius of Gaudy Night. By having the campus poltergeist only striking occasionally, Harriet is given opportunities to go do things in the quiet interludes. The initial absence of evidence together with its occasional dripping out gives space for the author to push Harriet into meeting people without some poor sap having to lie about whose handkerchief they saw at the crime scene.

How Ms. Sayers would have regarded short stories during this early period of Lord Peter I do not know. This was the time period in which short stories were where the real money was in fiction, for most authors at least, and so she would have had ample motivation to just make the stories work in order to meet deadlines. It was only after her failure to marry Lord Peter to Harriet that she started working on fleshing him out as a character, so I suspect that she didn’t much regard him in this way yet. Putting this together, I suspect that this story was meant to be an interesting moment that would pass and then be forgotten about, as most of the material of a monthly magazine would be. Granted, detective short stories had a habit of being published as a collection in book form once enough of them had been written, still, I suspect that at least part of the reason it’s hard to know what to make of this story is that the authoress never intended us to make anything of it. It contains the interesting idea, “what if one blackmailed a blackmailer?” and featured Lord Peter as much because name recognition of a character is probably better for sales than name recognition of an author is.

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