The Lord and the Law Part IV: Capital punishment in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L Sayers

The date of writing and setting of the Wimsey novels means that the killers unmasked by the aristocratic sleuth are liable to execution by hanging. It is not something from which Sayers shrinks, nor something which Wimsey can ignore.

There are anti-hanging voices in the novels. The ‘fast’ and drug-addled Dian de Momerie in MMA expresses negative sentiments about the death penalty, for example, telling Wimsey ‘I went to a murder trial once. There was a horrible old man, the Judge – I forget his name. He was like a wicked old scarlet parrot, and he [gave the death sentence] as though he liked it (MMA loc 3291). In GN, Miss Barton, a rather ridiculous figure, is also opposed to capital punishment. She bases this on a sympathetic view of murderers: ‘Our attitude to this whole thing seems to me completely savage and brutal. I have met so many murderers when visiting prisons, and most of them are very harmless, stupid people, poor creatures, when they aren’t definitely pathological.’ (GN, 36). This view is put down by our heroine, Harriet Vane, who comments that Miss Barton ‘might feel differently about it …if [she had] happened to meet the victims. They are often still stupider and more harmless than the murderers. But they don’t make a public appearance. Even the jury needn’t see the body unless they like. But I saw the body in that Wilvercombe case – I found it, and it was beastleir than anything you can imagine.’ … ‘And … you don’t see the murderers actively engaged in murdering. You see them when they’re caught and caged and looking pathetic. But the Wilvercombe man was a cunning, avaricious brute, and quite ready to go on and do it again, if he hadn’t been stopped’ (ibid.)

A more unusual view is expressed in Gaudy Night by Miss Edwards. While she feels that hanging is ‘wasteful and unkind’, she does not think murderers deserve to be ‘comfortably fed and housed while decent people go short’, and concludes that, as a matter of economics, ‘they should be used for laboratory experiments’. Lord Peter is not keen. (GN, 408).

Wimsey has at some point seen an execution, the implication being that he felt it his duty, if he was involving himself in the investigation of murder, and the conviction of murderers, to take some responsibility for the consequences of so doing: ‘I got permission to see a hanging once… I thought I’d better know … but it hasn’t cured me of meddling.’ (BH, 430). Clearly he has thought about it deeply, and put himself in the position of the condemned prisoner: ‘They give them something to make them sleep … It’s a merciful death compared to most natural ones … It’s only the waiting and knowing beforehand… And the ugliness. … Old Johnson was right, the procession to Tyburn was kinder … “The hangman with his gardener’s gloves comes through the padded door” (BH 430-31). It is made clear that he does feel his responsibility: he suffers from ‘nervous depression’ after an execution, when he has been involved in the case. (TD, loc. 309, and particularly in the last chapters of BH). Wimsey finds it particularly difficult to contemplate hanging a woman, despite an intellectual conviction that there should be equality here:‘Peter was conscious of a curious reluctance. Theoretically, he was quite a ready to hang a woman as a man, but the memory of Miss Twitterton, frenziedly clingng to Harriet, was disturbing to him.(BH, 163).

The overall view of the capital punishment question from the leading characters is positive in intellectual terms, but it is clear that the whole business is emotionally troubling. His views on and involvement in capital punishment provide some of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking moments in the Wimsey books, and give some interesting insights into contemporary non-abolitionist attitudes.

GS 18/9/2015


WB                  Whose Body? (1923) set 1922?[1]

CW                  Clouds of Witness (1926)

UD                  Unnatural Death (1927)

LPVB              Lord Peter Views the Body (short stories) (1928)

UBC                The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)

SP                    Strong Poison (1930)

FRH                Five Red Herrings (1931)

HHC               Have His Carcase (1932)

HH                  Hangman’s Holiday (short stories) (1933)

MMA              Murder Must Advertise  (1933)

TNT                 The Nine Tailors (1934)

GN                  Gaudy Night (1935)

BH                  Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

SF                    Striding Folly (short stories, published 1972)


TD                   Thrones, Dominations (by Jill Paton Walsh, based on a sketch by Dorothy L Sayers, 1998)