Law and Lord Peter: some legal content from the Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers

I have just listened to a good podcast on Dorothy L. Sayers – in the Shedunnit series. Amongst other nuggets, it made an interesting point about the comparative neglect of DLS’s detective novels, in contrast to those of A_____ C_______ . No major film/TV treatment since the 80s! What folly! I think the time is ripe for a big budget, Dowton Abbeyish series. I am casting it in my head already! Anwyay, it inspired me to collect these old posts from 2015 (goodness – that seems a lifetime ago) together in one handy format (and I will be reading a chapter or two of Wimsey before I go to sleep tonight, I think. And maybe expanding on this – how did I not write about the property law aspects???? Bad 2015 me!


The Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L. Sayers are regarded as among the very best ‘golden age’ detective novels. As well as being enjoyable in their characterisation and their intricate plotting, they also have a lot to say about contemporary attitudes to law and justice, and, although the interwar period is far away from my own medieval research haunts, it is still sufficiently ‘past’ to amount to something of legal historical interest. In these short notes, I will set out some key themes and ideas which occur in the novels (and to a lesser extent, the short stories) involving the aristocratic sleuth, with or without the excellent Harriet Vane and the ever-faithful Bunter. The first topic to which I would like to turn is that of lawyers. The interwar years, the setting for these novels, saw the last years of the noted barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall, amongst others, and women had recently been admitted to the Bar and the solicitors’ profession. What did Sayers give us in terms of fictional lawyers?

The towering legal figure in the books is Sir Impey Biggs KC, a leading criminal barrister, MP and canary breeder. At the time of Clouds of Witness, he is ‘thirty-eight, and a bachelor’ [CW, 68]. A legal family may be indicated by his Christian name, John Impey having been a famous legal writer of the eighteenth to nineteenth century, and Sir Elijah Impey an Indian judge of a slightly earlier period.

He is physically impressive, with ‘towering height … a shapely, expressive hand that would have made an actor’s fortune [which he found] useful in the exploitation of dramatic moments’, a ‘magnificent build’, ‘[noble] head and mask’, and ‘[flawless] features’ [CW, 68]. He has a ‘beautiful, resonant and exquisitely controlled voice’ [CW, 69]. Wimsey notes his ‘statuesque profile and is reminded of ‘the severe beauty of the charioteer of Delphi.’[CW, 70].

It is in his professional capacity that Biggs is generally seen. He is described as ‘our greatest criminal lawyer’ by Lord Peter, who shows his respect for Sir Impey’s skill on a number of occasions. Sir Impey’s skill in securing an acquittal for his clients is noted [WB, 23]. Biggs ‘was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses’ [CW, 68].

Biggs is seen in action in Strong Poison in the most important case of all – the trial of Harriet Vane for the murder of Philip Boyes. He is for the defence in this case. On the subject of Harriet’s having lived with Boyes without being married, the judge described his creative pleading, saying ‘Sir Impey Biggs, very rightly using all his great eloquence on behalf of his client, has painted this action of Harriet Vane’s in very rosy colours; he has spoken of unselfish sacrifice and self-immolation, and has reminded you that, in such a situation, the woman always has to pay more heavily than the man…’[SP, loc. 134].

Biggs’ technique is also described in Busman’s Honeymoon when he defends Frank Crutchley – an unrepentant murderer: ‘Sir Impey Biggs, eloquent on behalf of the prisoner – ‘this industrious and ambitious young man’; hinting at prejudice ‘a lady who may have some cause to fancy herself ill-used’; indulgently sceptical about ‘the instrument of destruction so picturesquely constructed by a gentleman whose ingenuity is notorious’; virtuously indignant at the construction placed upon ‘words uttered at random by a terrorised man’; astonished to discover in the case for the Prosecution ‘not a scintilla of direct proof’; passionately moving in his appeal to the jury not to sacrifice a young and valuable life on evidence so flimsily put together.’ [BH, 421].

Sir Impey fancies himself very perceptive: ‘Sir Impey Biggs was accustomed to boast that no witness could perjure himself in his presence undetected. As he put the question, he released the other’s eyes from his, and glanced down with finest cunning at Wimsey’s long, flexible mouth and nervous hands.’[CW, 72].

He can be a relaxed raconteur, but can also pace, smoking, and can be very businesslike, almost brutally so [CW, 72]. He can manipulate, but remains unmoved himself: ‘Tragic irony, cutting contempt of a savage indignation were the emotions by wh Sir Impey Biggs swayed court and jury: he prosecuted murderers of the innocent, defended in actions for criminal libel, and, moving others, was hard as stone.’[CW, 69]

He is all for his client, even suggesting to Wimsey that it may be best if a particular piece of evidence, or individual, is not found – showing an interesting contrast between the aristocrat’s mission to find the truth, and his own, to win the case for his client [CW, 71]. This point comes out even more clearly in an exchange in Clouds of Witness, when Wimsey says ‘Damn it all, we want to get at the truth!’, Biggs replies, ‘I don’t. I don’t care twopence about the truth. I want a case.’ This leads Wimsey to conclude ‘that the professional advocate [is] the most immoral fellow on the face of the earth’.’[CW, 168]

Sir Impey is not above courtroom stunts, such as having a patient show the court her leg in the Quangle and Hamper v Truth case (a case concerning claims for medicines) [CW, 164]. and uses lots of ‘abnormal cases from Glaister and Dixon Mann till the eyes of the jury reeled in their heads.’ in another case [WB, .22].

He can be slightly cynical in his expression – ‘Lawyers enjoy a little mystery, you know. Why if everybody came forward and told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth straight out, we should all retire to the workhouse’ [CW 69] and ‘It is wonderful what you can suggest to a jury if you try.’[CW, 70] Similarly fitting the lawyerly stereotype is the suggestion of greed in his remarks on hearing that Wimsey is not prosecuting despite having been the victim of attempted murder – ‘Really? Oh my dear Wimsey, this will never do. Lawyers have to live, you know.’[CW, 165]

Biggs does have some morals however. When asked by Wimsey what tactics are justified in dealing with a blackmailer, he replies ‘There you’ve put your fingers on Society’s sore place, where the Law is helpless. Speaking as a man, I’d say nothing could be too bad for the brute. It’s a crime crueller and infinitely worse in its results than murder. As a lawyer, I can only say that I have consistently refused to defend a blackmailer or to prosecute any poor devil who does away with his tormentor’ [LPVB, loc 1535’The unprincipled affair of the practical joker’].

Outside court and the Commons, he cuts a much less significant figure. Two rather belittling quirks are noted: ‘[t]he breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song, he could appreciate no music but revue airs.’[CW, 68] Furthermore, the qualities which make him such an effective lawyer may mean that he will be unable to find domestic happiness: ‘his .. eyes [are] ruthless’ and Wimsey’s mother, the rambling yet perceptive Dowager Duchess of Denver ‘had once remarked “Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him”’ [CW, 68].


The Faithful Family Solicitor

Contrasting in some respects with Sir Impey Biggs is another recurring lawyer: the solicitor, J. Murbles of Staple Inn(UBC loc890). Sayers’s portrayal of Murbles is generally positive, if somewhat condescending. While Biggs, the socially superior representative of what was very much the ‘higher branch’ of the legal profession, is physically impressive, Murbles, a lowlier lawyer, is described as a ‘little elderly gentleman … so perfectly the family solicitor as really to have no distinguishing personality at all, beyond a great kindness of heart and a weakness for soda-mint lozenges’(UBC loc 197), burdened by a ‘delicate digestion’ (CW 30). Nevertheless, Wimsey respects his sense, in law and in life, consulting him on issues relating to property (UD 162) and describing him as a ‘wise old bird’, who takes sensible precautions in dangerous situations (UD 223).

Unsurprisingly for one in his profession and station, Murbles’s political views appear to be Tory-traditionalist: thus, he is impatient with the socialist anti-aristocrat view of the radical Goyles, and is convinced that ‘the law’s the law for everybody’ (CW 162), which the benefit of hindsight tells us is a somewhat naive view to have held (albeit fictitiously) in the 1920s and 1930s. He can take a joke along familiar cynical lines relating to the legal profession – so when Lord Peter asks him whether lawyers ever go to heaven, he responds with a dry ‘I have no information on that point’ (UBC loc 273).

Murbles defers to his legal superiors, and is ready to consult counsel on more involved matters of property law. When a case turns on changes in the rules of succession following the 1925 property legislation (much beloved of English and Welsh law students to this day). Murbles suggests consulting a barrister, Towkington, ‘quite the ablest authority I could name’, on the point (UD 166). Although Murbles has his own ideas about the point, he defers to Towkington (UD 170).

All in all, Murbles is a resourceful and useful professional man who knows his place, both with regard to Lord Peter and with regard to the barristers with whom he has to deal.




Capital Punishment


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.

Abbreviations (references are to page number, unless preceded by ‘loc.’, in which case a Kindle location is meant)

WB                  Whose Body? (1923)

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)



Image: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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