"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood." With that, one of the great opening sentences of all time, Dorothy Sayers began "Strong Poison," published in 1930. Since then, when speaking of the evolution of the detective story into novel, the answer to "Who done it?" has been "Dorothy L. Sayers."
So all right-thinking ladies and gentlemen should be sitting in their brocade smoking jackets, fur-collared robes and velvet slippers, delicately sipping port brought by the butler, rejoicing, at 9 tonight. For then, on Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television (also tomorrow at 9 on Channel 32), "Mystery!" begins a 10-week series based on three Sayers mysteries of the 1930s, sleuthed by Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Together, the novels chronicle a love affair featuring "the new woman," an independent soul who can't believe she's found "the new man," who welcomes her as an equal partner. The books give a tantalizing glimpse of life between the world wars, when dilemmas were much like those today.
In "Strong Poison," Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, is accused of murdering her former lover because he offered to marry her only if she would live with him first. Originally she had accepted that his principles precluded marriage; what humiliated her was being put on trial "like an office boy."
Lord Peter, investigating, falls in love, woos her in jail (" 'If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,' said Harriet, severely") and solves the murder, absolving her.
" 'I don't think I should care to marry a murderess,' said Miss Titterton" -- a character in the book, in one of the bits of dialogue unfortunately not in the TV version -- " 'especially one that's been trained on detective stories. One would be always wondering whether there was anything funny about the taste of the coffee.' "
In "Have His Carcase," the second book in this PBS series, Vane, fleeing Lord Peter and her own notoriety, comes upon a man lying on the rocks with his throat cut from ear to ear. Those who normally do not find English mysteries gory enough can fair bathe in this bloody murder. Lord Peter joins in the chase, but though he finds the murderer, Vane still eludes him.
In "Gaudy Night," Sayers' own favorite and the most innovative of the three, she takes up the question some women of the 1980s think is new: Are work and love incompatible? The setting is drawn from Sayers' own women's college in Oxford, here called, not without malice, Shrewsbury. (Sayers is great for word games and names.)
In an earlier PBS series based on Sayers' pre-Vane Wimsey books of the '20s, Lord Peter was played by Ian Carmichael. This time around, Lord Peter is played by Edward Petherbridge; Harriet Vane by Harriet Walter; Bunter, the valet cum sleuth, by Richard Morant.
Unfortunately, they didn't ask me. Anthony Andrews, since Leslie Howard is dead, is the only one who could truly carry off the Wimsey wit with a witless air without looking silly, wimpish or stupid. But by the time "Gaudy Night" is finished (the book's splendid closing dialogue -- in Latin -- callously omitted), we've grown accustomed to Petherbridge's face. Walter is better as Vane, indeed rather endearing, though she lacks some sturdy qualities that Diana Rigg would have brought to the role. Morant, though not as perfect as Wimsey's man, is at least adequate.
But whatever the carping of the cult who've read the sacred writ 30 times, the episodes are the best mysteries you'll see not only this season, but likely until they do "Busman's Honeymoon," the final Wimsey-Vane novel, or the Sayers short stories. May that day be soon.