An overlong excerpt from The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers, recounting an argument between Lord Peter Wimsey (bibliophile noble and dilettante detective) and Inspector Charles Parker (a perfectly reasonable Scotland Yard man who only reads theology):
“Yes,” said Wimsey. “But—look here, Charles.”
A taxi drew up.
“What?” said Parker, sharply, with his foot on the step. “I can’t wait, old man. What is it?”
“I—look here, Charles—this is all wrong,” pleaded Wimsey. “You may have got the right solution, but the working of the sum’s all wrong. Same as mine used to be at school, when I’d looked up the answer in the crib and had to fudge in the middle part. I’ve been a fool. I ought to have known about Penberthy. But I don’t believe this story about bribing and corrupting him, and getting him to do the murder. It doesn’t fit.”
“Doesn’t fit what?”
“Doesn’t fit the portrait. Or the books. Or the way Nurse Armstrong described Ann Dorland. Or your description of her. It’s a mechanically perfect explanation, but I swear it’s all wrong.”
“If it’s mechanically perfect,” said Parker, “that’s good enough. It’s far more than most explanations are. You’ve got that portrait on the brain. It’s because you’re artistic, I suppose.”
For some reason, the word “artistic” produces the most alarming reactions in people who know anything about art.
“Artistic be damned!” said Wimsey, spluttering with fury, “it’s because I’m an ordinary person, and have met women, and talked to them like ordinary human beings—”
“You and your women,” said Parker, rudely.
“Well—I and my women, what about it? One learns something. You’re on the wrong tack about this girl.”
“I’ve met her and you haven’t,” objected Parker. “Unless you’re suppressing something. You keep on hinting things. Anyhow, I’ve met the girl, and she impressed me as being guilty.”
“And I haven’t met her, and I’ll swear she isn’t guilty.”
“You must know, of course.”
“I do happen to know about this.”
“I’m afraid your unsupported opinion will hardly be sufficient to refute the weight of evidence.”
“You haven’t any real evidence, if it comes to that. You don’t know that they were ever alone together; you don’t know that Ann Dorland knew about the will; you can’t prove that Penberthy administered the poison—”
“I don’t despair of getting all the evidence necessary,” said Parker, coldly,” provided you don’t keep me here all day.” He slammed the taxi-door.
I have a theory about the significance of detective stories. Or at least, their significance to me. I think there is a reason the genre got its start with private detectives and amateur sleuths rather than police procedurals. Because for anyone to arrive at Sam Spade or Lord Peter’s door, something must have gone wrong with the system — with the police, the evidence, the prosecutors, the courts, and the powers that be who fund them all. And for the story to be interesting, there must be something for the detective to discover — a case of mistaken identity, a misinterpreted motive, a misplaced piece of evidence. So in its way, the genre addresses an anxiety all we moderns have: that our lives are caught up between imperfect and arbitrary systems we don’t understand… systems that drive even perfectly good men like Inspector Parker to slam the door in the face of a contradictory perspective.
I’m told that philosophers and some more enlightened lawyers call the effort to close gaps between these systems and true justice “equity.” (In fact, in the book above, Lord Peter considers at some point that if the case he is investigating went to trial, it would never be decided by evidence or logic, but by the two lawyers’ emotional appeals to the jury — which he decides not to trust.) Anyway, I like the idea that each of the great fictional detectives represents his or her own form of equity, a personal vision of justice that for one reason or another, doesn’t quite fit with the system. Some of Lord Peter’s way is illuminated above — a gentlemanly code of honor, a mode of inquiry that is as much as aesthetic as it is empirical, a plodding or galloping scholarly speed in the pursuit.
And then there’s the War. Peter’s alliance with his friend and manservant Bunter was formed in the trenches. His struggles with shell shock give him empathy with all sorts of people who might otherwise be beneath the notice of the aristocracy. And I think it must have been the decimation of Europe that give him his simultaneous determination to prevent another death and his detachment from even the weightiest cases.
In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, when any little thing goes wrong, the aged Army men of the club reliably remark that it wasn’t this way before the War. Further down the pike of history, one may wonder whether the Great War (and all of the other wars) are more effect than cause of various violent systems coming to bear on the body of the people. That may be unfair to the many perfectly decent Inspector Parkers who serve and protect as a part of those systems, but I’m still glad we have the occasional remnant or eccentric like Lord Peter to rescue us.