by Laura Bloxham
One summer, late in my graduate education, I took an undergraduate class in detective fiction. I needed to enroll in a class, any class, in order to qualify for a teaching stipend that summer. I was in the depths of quasi-despair, reading novels, plays, poetry, in a mechanical mode my graduate school mind had internalized: make use of this material for Ph.D. exams or for teaching the elements of literature. I had lost much of the joy of reading that had led me to this enterprise in the first place. I was a pragmatic reader, pen in hand, marking passages, adding marginalia to the text. I was well-trained; I had internalized the success ethic of my trade.
That hot summer I sat in my basement apartment under an open window, dutifully reading first Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and then Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I had my pen in hand, but I found my reading pace increased to the point where I could not stop to mark or note points. I read until 4 a.m. on occasion. Once, in anger, I threw The Maltese Falcon across the room in an emotional response to the sexism of the author, the era, and the genre. But I was also hooked.
For years after that summer, I used reading mysteries to signal the end of the semester, the beginning of a break, where I could indulge myself. But it was not just the mysteries themselves, but the structure that relieved my stress. In W. H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” he writes, “The job of the detective is to restore the state of grace” in the closed society where sin enters by way of the murder. In my own terms, a mystery is satisfying because in the end justice is served, the disorderly world restored. In the messy world of an English professor, nothing is tidy, not even the end of a semester. There is always something dangling. Yet in the book world of the mystery, the ending is always tidy, even if not always happy. It is a murder mystery after all.
I am barely into retirement now, a world supposedly without deadlines and consequences. But I still find the need for the structure of the mystery. The content of any given mystery has its own messiness, but it also has that satisfying end, the restoration of order. What brings me joy at the moment is my rereading of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels in chronological order. I read my first Lord Peter in that mystery novel class more than forty years ago. My professor told us he had lied about his age in order to join the air force and ultimately fly missions over enemy territory in WWII. He returned home with what we now call PTSD. In Lord Peter the professor found a comrade, a man who “In 1918 . . . was blown up and buried in a shell-hole . . . that left him with a bad nervous breakdown, lasting, on and off, for two years” (Biography of Lord Peter Wimsey, included at the end of Dorothy Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club). He has as his valet, Bunter, who served under him during the war, and now serves Wimsey literally and in a compassionate fashion when the War comes back to haunt Peter. Dorothy Sayers gives Lord Peter a fussy character, a silly persona, which diverts attention from his detection. She gives him the family motto: “As my whimsy takes me,” a lovely play on trait and name. This whimsical exterior also hides, most of the time, the shell shock that haunts him. While many readers of the Lord Peter tales prefer the four Harriet Vane novels, where he meets and woos his equal, I prefer the earlier novels where Lord Peter’s past is raw, more exposed. I am experiencing joy now, four novels into this eleven novel journey, in revisiting Sayers’ Lord Peter, paying particular attention to his developing character, and paying homage to a person who had a significant influence on my life, both for his introduction to me of the mystery novel and for this dear professor’s life’s experiences.
Laura Bloxham is a retired English professor who lives for books and baseball.