Detective Fiction & Reworking Masculinity
In the 1920s and 1930s, an entire generation of British men was attempting to return to “normal life” while being haunted by the horrors of the World War I trenches. For the first time in medical history, the diagnosis of “shell-shock” was being identified and explored. In a nation slowly recovering from tragedy there was an impulse to rework the definition of “strong masculinity” to allow for uncertainty and vulnerability, characteristics that had previously been viewed as weak and/or feminine. Redefining masculinity is was one of the great projects of detective fiction from the interwar period, and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey—along with other literary sleuths— was at the center of it.
Throughout the novels, short stories and play that make up the Wimsey mythology, Wimsey fulfills traditionally masculine roles: in WWI, he is a warrior; within the British society structure he is an honorable and patriarchal noble; and as a detective, he is a protector of society. However, Wimsey also embodies a well-worn breakdown between the expectations of performing masculinity and the fragile reality of moving through the world as a thoughtful, caring Christian humanist. Through Wimsey, through his wife and partner, Harriet, and through the business of detecting, Sayers challenges and remakes the understanding of masculinity in a post-war, proto-feminist world.
In Busman’s Honeymoon, Wimsey’s service as an officer in WWI is backgrounded: he recognizes and jokes about the vintage of a firearm and is more inclined to foreground his educational pedigree than his veteran status. Writes Monica Lott:
“Wimsey’s trauma from his war experience makes him more compelling and more relatable…Sayers’ writing introduces a character whose emotion and detective abilities create an anti-rationality that redefines post-war masculinity. Sayers makes a strong claim for the power of the act of detection in granting her male protagonist a sense of agency; by extension, detective fiction itself is viewed by Sayers as having a vital role to play in the healing of a culture traumatized by the Great War.”
In Wimsey’s detecting, he defies tropes of masculinity: he is not a braggart about his cleverness. He doesn’t approach detecting as a puzzle to be solved or a game to be won but instead pursues justice for justice’s sake. But when justice is achieved, it pains him. Wimsey knows that each time he solves a crime it means the murderer will hang. It is these deaths, which come indirectly at his hand, that try him most. With each case solved, Wimsey is traumatized by the tragedy of justice. Sayers keeps that discomfort in her stories, forcing the reader to face up to and meditate on this unpleasant truth with Wimsey. It is in these moments—tortured by a moral dilemma, aware that no solution satisfies, yet doing the best he can—that Wimsey’s masculinity is most dramatically re-defined.
Thanks & Further Reading
On this topic, I am indebted to the following research materials. All are accessible online and worth exploring further.
- “Seventy Years Of Swearing Upon Eric The Skull: Genre And Gender In Selected Works By Detection Club Writers Dorothy L. Sayers And Agatha Christie” by Monica L. Lott, Ph. D
- “Detecting Masculinity: The Positive Masculine Qualities Of Fictional Detectives” by Amy Herring Griswold, Ph. D
- “The Career of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey: Masculinity, Myth and Modernity” by Susan Rowland