30 September 2009

The Law and Lord Peter Wimsey: More of an Introduction Than an Analysis

I have recently begun rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers's mysteries are intricately plotted, elegantly written and feature one of my favorite literary characters. Over the course of the series Lord Peter becomes so well-drawn a character that it can be hard to remember he only ever existed on paper. (Particularly when his portrait hangs in Balliol College, Oxford, from which he was to have graduated, and he has his own memorial suite at the Park Lane Hotel, which sits on the site of his flat in London.)

Like many mysteries featuring amateur detectives, the Lord Peter books are considered "cozy" mysteries (rather than hard-boiled or police procedural, the other two main subgenres), though they do contain many descriptions of formal police work because of Lord Peter's friendship with Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. This interplay between the amateur detective and the police force is hardly unique to this series, of course. What interests me more is Sayers's inclusion of various other legal proceedings in many of the books as well. In Clouds of Witness, for example, the House of Lords assembles under antiquated procedures to try one of their own for murder, and in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club Lord Peter must determine who died first, a brother or a sister, in a significant inheritance matter.

My favorite of these legal storylines, however, is in Unnatural Death, which hinges on statutory interpretation. Statutory interpretation! (Sorry, geek moment.) Not only that, but the act in question is the very real Law of Property Act 1925, which is still in force today.

Sayers's in-text illustration of the legal meaning of words v. their everyday meaning wouldn't be at all out of place in a first semester law course even today:

"Then again, words which are quite meaningless in your ordinary conversation may have meaning in law. For instance, I might say to a young man like yourself, 'You wish to leave such-and-such property to so-and-so.' And you would very likely reply, 'Oh, yes, absolutely' -- meaning nothing in particular by that. But if you were to write in your will, 'I leave such-and-such property to so-and-so absolutely,' then that word would bear a definite legal meaning, and would condition your bequest in a certain manner, and might even prove an embarrassment and produce results very far from your actual intentions."

Just because something is classified as fiction doesn't mean it can't contain a whole lot of truth, whether about the law or human nature. The fact that I can sit down to read as an escape and garner some knowledge of real life as well delights me.

(Sidenote: For some reason, I have never really liked the first book in the series, Whose Body?, overly much. It pales next to the others somehow. I don't say this to discourage anyone from reading the series, or to taint your opinion before you even start. I'm just trying to say that if you start there -- and, honestly, they should be read in order because Lord Peter ages in real time -- and feel a bit underwhelmed, know the series only gets better from there.)