A Liberal Education: Reading Lord Peter Wimsey


To be liberally educated is to practice Dorothy Sayers’ “Lost Tools of Learning.” But it is not in this famous essay alone that Miss Sayers’ fame resides.

At Christmas, my sister had several books for me to read. One was Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel entitled Clouds of Witness, with the sub-title: The Solution of the Riddlesdale Mystery with a Report of the Trial of the Duke of Denver for Murder.

The first chapter was entitled, “With Malice Aforethought.” It began with a citation from Othello – “Oh, who hath done this deed?” The chapter ended: “Guided by these extremely plain hints, the jury, without very long consideration, returned a verdict of willful murder against Gerald, Duke of Denver.” That seemed to settle it. But this was only a jury of inquiry. The real trial was yet to come.

As we quickly learn, the Duke was the brother of Lord Peter Wimsey. Moreover, his and the Duke’s sister, Lady Mary, was involved. This murder was a Wimsey family affair as their Dowager mother was also present. At one point Lady Mary confessed to having murdered her fiancé, the victim, in order to protect her lover. I will not further reveal the intricate plot. In the end, the Duke was found innocent. In fact, no murder occurred – but that is the plot.   

Why the novel was called Clouds of Witness puzzled me. “Witness” is singular, not plural. Many suspects and witnesses were examined. Initially, I thought that it was about the confusion caused by conflicting testimonies. But if “witness” in the title is singular, which it is, it could mean the obscurity that still hangs over a case when all the evidence is in while things remain “cloudy.”

Reading Dorothy Sayers we are in erudite British company, which somehow frequently use “ain’t.” When we see the word “ain’t” in an American novel, like Wendell Berry’s A Place in Time, well that’s how some Kentucky folks talk. But among English aristocracy, we are pretty sure that they do not talk this way. Everyone understands that it is a deliberate affectation.

        The first edition (1926)

Chapter Three is entitled “Mudstains and Bloodstains.” A citation from David Copperfield introduces it: “‘Other things are all very well in their way, but give me Blood. . . .’ We say, ‘There it is! There’s Blood!’ It is an actual matter of fact. We point it out. It admits of no doubt. . . .We must have Blood, you know.’” All detective story essentials are present – facts, clues, real blood, deception, and evidence.

But after a chapter in which facts and blood figure prominently, erudition comes out. Lord Peter had unearthed some evidence that seemed to favor his brother Gerald, the Duke. Lord Peter sat on a low stonewall to muse about what he had learned. “‘Things began to look a bit more comfortable for old Jerry,’ said Lord Peter. He. . .began whistling softly but with great accuracy, that elaborate passage of Bach which begins ‘Let Zion’s children.’” That is Bach’s Motet #225: “Let us sing a new song to the Lord.” This reference to Psalms 149 and 150 occurs in the middle of a detective story, whistled “with great accuracy”!

English detective novels often have something French about them. Chapter Five is entitled: “The Rue St. Honoré and the Rue de la Paix.” It too is introduced by a famous reference, this time from H. M. S. Pinafore that reads: “I think it was the cat.” The “cat” turns out to be a piece of jewelry found near the scene of the crime, but purchased in Paris for a lady by the victim.

The English detective friend of Lord Peter is Charles Parker. He is sent to Paris to check on things, especially jewelry sales. What he finds out, he writes in a letter to Lord Peter. He gives the letter to the valet de chamber to mail colis postal to England.

The next sentence reads: “After which (mailing) he (Parker) went to bed and read himself to sleep with a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Where else but in Dorothy Sayers could we find an English police officer in Paris who goes to sleep by reading, not the Epistle to the Hebrews itself, but a commentary on it!

In reading Lord Peter Wimsey, we are liberally educated. We learn not only of murderous plots but of Shakespeare, Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bach, the last two Psalms, and, not least, commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews.

At Mass recently, the first reading was Hebrews 12:1. There it was: “A cloud of witnesses!” And the next day I received Father George Rutler’s new book entitled, sure enough, Cloud of Witnesses. Suddenly the title of Sayers’ book was not such a mystery. The police officer reading a commentary on Hebrews – what else would he read! To read a detective story, it helps to know scripture and English literature.



James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019