Tuesday ’Tec! The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag by Dorothy L Sayers

Wimsey and the art of motorcycling…

 

I am about to commit bookish blasphemy, so sensitive crime fiction lovers may wish to look away now. I’ve never liked Lord Peter Wimsey. There! I’ve said it! But how could I possibly have a series on great ‘tecs and not include him? So, like the martyr I am, I have cautiously approached one of Ms Sayers’ short stories, and I freely admit to being much taken by the title. Will she win me over? All will be revealed in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag

by Dorothy L Sayers

 

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers

 

The Great North Road wound away like a flat, steel-grey ribbon. Up it, with the sun and wind behind them, two black specks moved swiftly. To the yokel in charge of the hay-wagon they were only two of “they dratted motor-cyclists”, as they barked and zoomed past him in rapid succession.

The two motor-cyclists continue to chase each other at ridiculous speeds up the Great North Road until eventually they are stopped by an officious policeman who takes their details and informs them they’ll be summonsed for speeding. Aggrieved, the first motor-cyclist, Walters, explains that he was merely trying to catch the other man, Simpkins, to return a bag that had fallen off his bike thirty miles back at Hatfield. Simpkins vehemently denies all knowledge of the bag. Our policeman isn’t terribly interested in this disagreement… until a passing A.A. man notices that the bag seems to be wet and horribly sticky in one corner…

The constable proved the split seam in silence, and then turned hurriedly round to wave away a couple of young women who had stopped to stare. The A.A. man peered curiously, and then started back with a sensation of sickness.
“Ow, Gawd!” he gasped. “It’s curly—it’s a woman’s.”

Suddenly the ownership of the bag takes on a new importance. So it’s unfortunate for Lord Peter Wimsey that it’s just at this moment he chooses to appear on the scene…

“Hullo, officer!” said a voice behind them. “What’s all the excitement? You haven’t seen a motor-cyclist go by with a little bag on his carrier, I suppose?”

I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter...
I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter…

On learning about the horror in the bag, Lord Peter hastily explains that it’s not his, though it looks like the one he has been pursuing. He explains that a similar bag, containing some jewellery, had been stolen from his car the day before…

I made enquiries through Scotland Yard, and was informed to-day that a bag of precisely similar appearance had been cloak-roomed yesterday afternoon at Paddington, main line. I hurried round there, and was told by the clerk that just before the police warning came through the bag had been claimed by a man in motor-cycling kit. A porter said he saw the man leave the station, and a loiterer observed him riding off on a motor-bicycle.

And so Lord Peter had joined the chase up the Great North Road. It’s now up to the police to decide which of the three men is telling the truth. Of course, they quickly eliminate Lord Peter from all suspicion, because… well, because he’s a Lord and speaks with a posh accent, primarily, but also because he has helped the police in the past. And he helps them again now by making a brilliant suggestion well beyond the intellectual capacities of the force’s finest…

“Well, look here,” said the man addressed as “my lord”, “I’ve got an idea for what it’s worth. Suppose, superintendent, you turn out as many of your men as you think adequate to keep an eye on three desperate criminals, and we all tool down to Hatfield together. I can take two in my ‘bus at a pinch, and no doubt you have a police car. If this thing did fall off the carrier, somebody beside Mr. Walters may have seen it fall.”

But even once it’s discovered which of the men took the bag from the cloakroom, there’s still another twist to come…

* * * * *

OK, I hate the snobbery in the Wimsey stories, however much disguised by humour. I hate the grovelling forelock-tugging attitude of all and sundry to the foppish Lord Peter. And I hate the portrayal of working-class people as loutish, mentally-challenged bumpkins, and their silly dialects. Oh, and I really hate Lord Peter’s mocking condescension to his social ‘inferiors’.

...but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me...
…but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me…

That said, I admit the story is well-written and full of humour. While it’s not a ‘fair play’ story since there’s no way to work out the solution before it’s given, the plot is clever and fun with a nice little twist in the tail. Lord Peter goes beyond deduction towards brilliant intuition at a couple of points, and the police are left trailing in his wake, but that’s fairly standard for detective stories of this era. There’s not much in the way of characterisation – the police are stereotypes, and it’s clearly aimed at readers of the novels who will already be familiar with Lord Peter’s history. But that doesn’t matter, since it’s not aiming to be more than a light entertainment, and it succeeds well on that level. I did enjoy it in the end, but not enough to want to subject myself to re-reading the novels, I fear. Apologies to all passionate Wimsey fans everywhere!

Want to find out what happened? Here’s a link to the story…

Or here’s a reading of it by the wonderful Ian Carmichael…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating:

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂

60 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag by Dorothy L Sayers

    • I think it must be an age thing – at one point she was as well known as Agatha Christie, but I think the snobbery probably means they haven’t aged as well. Loads of people love her books though, so don’t let me put you off! The short stories seem quite light, but the full length novels are darker and more serious, and from memory the novels are much more ‘fair play’.

  1. Never heard of this guy! But…I think I’ve heard of Dorothy. What an interesting picture she takes. I’m not sure what she’s trying to communicate, really.

    No! Why did the motorcyclists stop? They shouldn’t have. They should’ve just sped right by the officer. Motorcycles can do that sort of thing, you know.

    And I think Lord Peter is scary.

    • You’re probably too old – they were fashionable when BUS was a girl. I think she’s trying to let us all know that she’s far too socially superior to mix with us hoi-polloi…

      Or over him! I felt that too, but they were obviously wusses.

      Which one? Ian Carmichael also played Bertie Wooster, you know, you know…

      • Hoi-polloi… *says it a few times until it feels comfortable* What a saying there! I’m so very old, that’s true.

        I wouldn’t have stopped for a minute!

        Bertie Wooster is NOT a guy’s name!

        • *laughs* It’s a nice word, isn’t it? I know – I worry about your poor old knees constantly.

          Nor me! Vroom-vroom!! (Bet Schwarzy would be insanely jealous of my motorbike impersonation…)

          Oh, you’re just jealous ‘cos he was on my Valentine list this year and you…

            • *worry gene switches on* Oh, do be careful! Don’t let your nose get in a tackle! *ponders* Will you be wearing the dinky little uniform?

              He should get jealous of me!!!!!

              *sad face*

            • *laughs* No uniform. It’s just…way too casual for that. Did I tell you…at this competition I’m going to… (It’s called the Guitar Foundation of America) …well, they’re going to have a soccer game! They said come prepared to defend your country, imagine.

              He’s a bit too…well…for that.

              Here’s a cherry starburst. That should cheer you up.

            • Ooh! *worry gene goes into overdrive* You mean you’ll be playing without protective padding?!? I’m not sure I can allow this! Soccer is much safer – you might break a leg or two, but you’re unlikely to damage your guitar fingers! (Don’t be the goalkeeper!!) Do you know the rules though? Try to remember you’re not allowed to pick the ball up! (I’m ridiculously excited about this competition, you know, you know! Ridiculously!! Just off to google it!)

              *nods* Confident of my love for him? Understandable…

              Cherry! There’s no such thing! Anyway I was being sad for you!

            • Nah! But I don’t think there’ll be tackling. It is a violent game, anything is bound to happen. I always wear a glove…on the right hand. Hopefully that protects things. *laughing lots* You know! I used to play soccer when I was a little thing! And I was always the goalkeeper…actually got a scar from those days! (Isn’t it awesome? I’m still going to…win!)

              I didn’t know you loved him! A wonder, madam.

              Yes, I know…but I’m not sure why. Can you please explain it to me?

            • Take your katana – that should deter them from getting too close! Me too! And I was the goalie too, but only ‘cos WOB made me! I cannot tell a lie – I was rubbish at it. But at least the goalie doesn’t have to run about so much, and if the opposing team is really bad, you can read a bit of your book… (You are!! *proud PEP face*)

              Of course I do! How could I not? Charming, sweet and cuddly… I’ll miss him terribly, you know, you know…

              Well, that you didn’t make it onto my Valentine list this year… *offers Prof a green Starburst to compensate*

            • How mean! Imagine making your little sister bloke balls that you’re kicking! He is wicked. *laughs* I loved being goalie. Was my favorite position, since I couldn’t dribble. (We hope!)

              Yes, I’m about to work on all that, I think. You’ll have to send him a love letter, then.

              Oh! I didn’t?! Why not?

            • I know!! And not just him – his pals too! But I had a cunning plan to prevent injury – I just let any fast balls go past me. *wicked laugh*

              But he wouldn’t reply and then my heart would be broken…

              You didn’t notice?!? If I still flounced, I would flounce at this point…

            • Yes! It hurts to get hit by a soccer ball. I would’ve dodged too. Good for you, madam!

              Well, he wouldn’t mean anything by it, I promise.

              How could I possibly notice!

            • Uh-huh! A likely story! Sometimes I almost think… but nah! Couldn’t be…

              Well, to simplify, had you been on the list you would have received a Valentine. But you didn’t. Not from me, at least – you probably got hundreds from your other admirers. Have a blackcurrant…

            • Tchah! You got one last year, sir! And I bet it wasn’t the first…or the last! Ooh, I wonder if I could make you jealous though… *plots*

  2. FictionFan – I admit that I don’t find Lord Peter as insufferable as you do, but you’re not alone in your dislike of him; nor are you in your dislike of the way the differences in social classes are portrayed in Sayers’ work. But I am glad you found this story to be well-written. Sayers was one of those authors who can do short stories as well as longer novels, and a lot of ’em can’t.

    • I think I’m the wrong age – if I’d been older I’d probably have accepted the attitudes without thinking too much about it, and if I’d been younger I’d probably have looked on them as a quaint part of the past. But being in the middle, they really grated on me in my class-warrior teen era and I’ve never got over it. 😉 Funnily enough the TV adaptations have worked much better for me than the books in this instance.

  3. I’m sort of with you on Wimsey. It’s odd that Allingham and Marsh, in imitation of Sayers, respectively made Campion and Alleyn similarly foppish toffs to begin with, but then rapidly walked that characterization back so that their detectives became just normal people. Sayers, I think, never quite managed that trick.

    I recently reread the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, and was reminded that it was the worst of all in the toffish respect. It’s also diabolically written. Anyone claiming Sayers as a fine writer should be forced to read that particular novel and think again. She improved later, of course, but . . .

    • I haven’t read much of Allingham, but the little I have made me laugh so much at the sexism I probably missed the snobbery! I had similar problems with Alleyn, though not to the same degree, but they’re also books I’m reluctant to re-visit. Can’t say I’m sorry about the demise of the ‘gentleman detective’ – I even struggle a bit with PD James’ Adam Dalgliesh. It’s the subservience that gets to me…

      I recently attempted to re-read ‘Five Red Herrings’ and only got to about page 8 before her stereotyped red-headed drunken belligerent dialect-spouting Scotsman made me want to throw the Kindle at the wall… grrr!

      • I don’t recall much that was problematic on the sexism front in Allingham — certainly no more than in any other novel of that era, and less than in many. Mind you, it’s a while since I’ve read/reread her (aside from The Tiger in the Smoke a couple of years ago — much enjoyed! — and a short story collection more recently), so my memory could be wearing rose-colored spectacles. Yet I do recall that Miranda grew to become more resolute and if anything more competent than Campion.

        Allingham herself was pretty forward-thinking.

        • It’s been so long since I read any of the Campion books I honestly can’t remember much about them, but I read one of her early pre-Campion books a couple of years ago, The White Cottage Mystery, and it provided me with one of the sentences I most like to quote, from the mouth of the Detective Chief Inspector… ‘Oh, you women, you women. When will you realise what is important and what is not?’ When indeed? Surprisingly, none of the assembled women hit him over the head with their handbags or stamped on his toes with their pretty little kitten heels… 😉 It reminds me of one of my favourite skits… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w However, I did enjoy the book!

          • To be honest, I’ve never really registered the non-Campion Allinghams — I knew they were there but had at the same time forgotten about them, if you know what I mean! Hm. Off to the trusty library I go with some request slips in hand. This is going to offer them a bit of a challenge in sleepy rural New Jersey!

  4. I tried to read one of the books and lost interest somewhere along the way. The BBC version of him was easier to follow but I definitely saw and heard the class behavior in play. It kind of bothered me.

    • I read most if not all of them when I was a teenager even though they irritated me intensely. She is a good writer, it’s just her attitudes that get to me. But I liked both of the BBC adaptations a bit more – somehow they work better for me on TV. Must be to do with the fact that I liked both of the actors who played him.

  5. Just call me Rip Van Winkle, for I’ve never heard of Ms. Sayers or Lord Wimsey!! Gee, that says a lot for my education, doesn’t it, ha!! I’m not sure this would be the sort of story I could get into (I really think authors should at least give their readers a chance to solve the puzzle, and I find reading dialect rather tedious). You’ve done a great job with the review, though!

    • She’s a very British author – I’d expect it would only really be dedicated crime fiction fans who’d heard of her elsewhere. Plus, although she was a huge part of the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing, she doesn’t seem to have stayed as popular as Agatha Christie has – a lot of them haven’t, I think because of the class issues. You’re probably too young for her… 🙂

  6. Though I am a fan of the Peter Wimsey series, your review made me giggle. The forelock-tugging snobbery is definitely apparent. But the series entertained me back in the days when I read any cozy mystery I could get my hands on. (And this included Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn stories.)

    • I read most of them, and the Alleyn stories, as a teenager but the class thing always irritated me, and it hasn’t got better over the years. I’m betting it wouldn’t bother me so much if I wasn’t British though – a lot of ‘foreigners’ still think Britain’s like that. And some of the aristocracy over here still think we are too… *sharpens guillotine* 😉

  7. Great line: I hate the grovelling forelock-tugging attitude of all and sundry to the foppish Lord Peter.

    I can hear your accent in it! Foppish is a great word . . . Not enough Americans use this word. I think I will try and change that. 🙂

  8. I tried to read most of the British “Golden Age” mystery writers. I never got far with Sayers; I found the one book I started to be really dull. Oh, she was a respected scholar, and many hold her in esteem, but I found the writing rather stultifying. I did read a short story of hers in an anthology once and it was good, so maybe she is better in that metier.

    The other problem is her reputed anti-semitism. I haven’t read enough of her work to actually experience that, but it is pretty widely acknowledged, though she apparently denied it. Agatha Christie had a little of that in her earlier works, but I think she was generally xenophobic, so somehow it is a bit muted by that. And later on, there was nothing objectionable in that way which I can remember. But Sayers is more known for having such a bias, and it certainly would be another reason for me not to want to read her novels.

    Having mostly run out of things to watch, I did buy the Wimsey mystery stories as shown on PBS “Mystery.” I have actually liked them, as Ian Carmichael is superb, and the casting and period setting is excellent. I am all for reading over TV or movie watching, but in this case, I think that the adaptations might be superior to the written product.

    • I certainly enjoyed this short story more than the books – but maybe that was just because it was short! I do try hard to overlook outdated attitudes in old books but sometimes it’s harder than others, though I’m not sure why. I think sometimes it’s just a form of carelessness – going along with the prevailing attitudes of the day – whereas with some authors they really come across as if they have thought about it and believe in their own superiority, be it race, class, or gender. I love Henry Rider Haggard but find Rudyard Kipling unreadable. And I’m afraid Sayers falls into the second category for me too. Agatha Christie on the other hand always seems to me as if she just accepts the prevailing attitude that Brits were better than everyone else, so I never felt her anti-semitism was any more than a part of that. And I fear if we were to exclude every British writer who thought we were superior to all other nationalities, we wouldn’t be able to read many British books written before about 2010!

      I’m the same – I preferred the adaptations of these too, which is unusual for me. The Carmichael ones are my favourites, but the Petherbridge version is very good too – he plays Lord Peter as much more serious though.

  9. Well, I’ll step up and admit that I have never read a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel or short story. Not sure I ever will. I’m kind of an Agatha fan. And there’s something about Lord Peter (maybe the monocle?) that I just don’t like. I know. Heresy. 😉

    • I love Agatha Christie – always have, always will! I know she had some similar attitudes but somehow I don’t find them offensive in her books – she may have looked down on ‘foreigners’ but she still had a Belgian as her detective. And though she did often show the maids in her books as stupid, she was also kind about them. I have an aversion to toffs as detectives – inverse snobbery, I know, but I can’t help it! 😉

  10. I think you’re right about the generation gap. I read these probably 10 years before you did, and I wasn’t put off by the snobbish attitudes. I’m sure if I was reading them now for the first time, they would annoy me so much I wouldn’t be able to finish them.

    • Yes, I think that particular period of the late 60s/early 70s was the point where these attitudes began to be seen as really outdated – though some people still cling to them today… 😉

  11. I began Whose Body with great expectations..Sayers is so popular..and left it halfway..it just wasn’t gripping enough..I liked Wimsey because of all the stereotypical monocle and English Lord stuff, but the dialogue I found to be a bit too vague and the plotting is just not as tight as Christie’s..just came up here to see what you, being a crime fiction expert, think of her..glad to see not much.. 😛 😉
    Still..do you think I should persevere?

    • Difficult to say. People who love her really love her, but her magic just never worked for me. However Whose Body was her first, I think, and first books are rarely the best. It might be worth reading one of the later ones and see how you get on – if you do like it, you can always backtrack. Although there’s a running storyline in the background of the later ones about Wimsey’s love affair with Harriet Vane, each book still stands alone and can be read in any order. Maybe Have His Carcase or Murder Must Advertise? Lots of people say Gaudy Night is the best, but that kind of gives away the end of the Wimsey/Vane story, so I’d leave it till later. I’m going to try one of her novels again sometime too and see if I can work out what it is other people love so much about them… 🙂

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