The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

I recently got a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. I’ve already reviewed The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention. It has elements which remind me of the current pulp revolution, which made me curious as to its publication. Unfortunately, publication information is not easy to come by; why books which collect short stories don’t see fit to include this information I cannot fathom. Anyway, this book says that The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head was first published in volume 61 of Pearson’s (a literary magazine) in June of 1926, so I don’t know if it would technically count as a pulp, but despite being about Lord Peter Wimsey, it definitely has pulpy elements. Since it’s approximately impossible to discuss short stories without giving spoilers, I will simply give a spoiler warning here and then discuss the story with spoilers. I do recommend the story—it was an enjoyable read.

(This is your last chance to go read it before spoilers, just so you know.)

We might loosely divide the story up into three acts. In the first act Lord Peter is in an old book shop with his ten year old nephew, who buys a damaged version of an old book which would be valuable in good condition. In the second act, a man approaches Wimsey and tries to buy and then steal the book. In the third act, Wimsey goes off to the home of the original owner and discovers that the book may be the key to a family legacy of pirate treasure.

The first act is rather prosaic, and has probably the most familiar elements of Lord Peter novels—interesting characters and engaging dialog. One gets the most flavor of Lord Peter’s banter when he is not active, so this is the part of the story which has the most Lord Peter flavor.

In the second act we get to see Lord Peter’s burglar alarms which, given the publication date of 1926, verge on being science fiction. The action was over relatively quickly, but in an expert fashion which reminded me of the supreme competence of the man of bronze, Doc Savage. Not nearly as over-the-top as Doc Savage, but then compared to Doc Savage most things are barely a fifth of the way up. Still, a theme in short stories from the time seems to have been hero worship; short stories are often forced to do a lot of telling rather than showing and there was clearly an appetite for the glories of achievement through hard work in those days. There was also, interestingly, a reference to Sexton Blake (in the quality of the rope-work used to tie up intruders). Mystery has always been a self-referential genre; it is a very long-standing tradition for fictional detectives to reference other fictional detectives as fiction. I think it works within mystery fiction better than it would in most other genres, which do better to pretend that their genre doesn’t exist within the fictional world in which they’re set. Science fiction characters should not, as a rule, read science fiction novels, just as sorcerers shouldn’t read fantasy novels and people in a love story shouldn’t read romance novels. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I suspect that these are sensible rules.)

The third act takes place in the decaying family estate from which the book came to the book seller. It’s also interesting to note that while modern retrospective dramas such as Downton Abbey or The Crown take place in families which still have money and therefore can afford the miniature villages which great houses could be—if they could afford to employ most of the villagers—when mysteries of the early 1900s were set in great houses, it was usually in great houses that were falling apart from (relative) poverty and neglect. This is no accident, of course. A house that is lived in has its secrets, but many of them can be found out simply by asking, and even the ones that can’t are often at least partially known by people who weren’t supposed to know them. A house that had been lived in requires investigation to find out most of its secrets. There’s also a much wider scope for motives to strange actions in a decaying great house since a functioning great house takes care of most of its occupants’ needs.

In The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, the almost mandatory unkempt gardens  and Chinese pagodas symbolizing the bad taste of someone who came into money later in life are actually a key to the mystery. This is, I think, a good example of Chesterton’s dictum that the culprit should be, whenever possible, someone we would never suspect. Chesterton warned of the problem of there being only one person we’ve never suspected making that person the obvious culprit, of course, and praised Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze as being the best example of this trick (spoiler alert), since the horse’s presence is completely explained by the owner keeping horses for racing. In the same way, though the scenery isn’t a murderer, it is hiding the treasure and I think it a very good construction that the scenery we assume exists only to denote the conventional bad taste of a progenitor actually served the progenitor’s purpose; in a man-made lake the burier of the treasure actually made his little Islands to correspond to an ancient map in an ancient book. This may be the only example I know of in which the treasure map came first and the treasure was buried according to it. It is an ingenious device for disguising the treasure map.

Overall I strongly recommend this short story; unlike the previous one I reviewed I do expect to re-read it on occasion.


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.

tddowb

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

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.

tddowb