Yet Another Journal

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» Friday, January 24, 2003
The “Peter Principle”
(a rambling discourse with an overlong and fond digression about a bookstore...)

I’ve spent the last two evenings being entertained by a lordly, uncommonly interesting gentleman. James was fine about it, too.

You see, I received my Lord Peter Wimsey DVDs from and had to watch them both immediately.

Naturally I watched my favorite, Murder Must Advertise, first. This was my initial exposure to Lord Peter so long ago when it was broadcast on Masterpiece Theatre. Needless to say, I was captivated. I managed to snag both Murder and my other favorite (naturally, the second DVD), The Nine Tailors, on video from broadcast, but both were deteriorating and had interference since they were telecast from Boston. Therefore I was determined to buy Murder when I saw it was being released on DVD by Acorn Media (the last of the Ian Carmichael stories done, to my dismay and my pocketbook’s joy). Deepdiscount offered me such a good rate that I couldn’t resist ordering both at once.

I was in college at the time Lord Peter entered my life, on a limited budget; needless to say I was a bad girl and forewent schoolbooks to buy all the Wimsey novels, re-released by Avon to coincide with the series being featured on Masterpiece Theatre (Nine Tailors, which for some reason was owned by Harcourt, was luckily also re-released in a paperback edition). The paperbacks were (gasp!) the then enormous sum of $1.25 in the mid-1970s, so I ended up buying them two at the time.

However, this was no chore, either: the bookstore situation in Rhode Island was a bit thin in those days (I hadn’t yet discovered the ones on Thayer Street and the Waldenbooks at Warwick Mall didn’t carry all of the Wimseys, just what had been shown on TV), so the quest for Lord Peter meant I had to go to downtown Providence to perhaps one of the best bookstores I’ve ever shopped in. Such a hardship!!!

It certainly didn’t look like much. It was a little storefront tucked in between boring clothing stores on Weybosset Street, cat-corner from the Outlet Company department store. The plain white sign said simply “Paperback Books.” Inside the floor was of worn tile, the shelves of finished but aged and worn wood. The interior itself wasn’t very large, although the store described an L-shape and widened as you walked toward the rear. Leaving just enough room in the aisles for the average person, every other square inch of the floor was covered with book shelves (the ones lining the perimeter of the room were nearly up to the ceiling); the cashier sat up in a large booth overlooking the store, not only to keep a weather eye out for shoplifters, but so that more books could be crammed around her.

If it wasn’t at the paperback bookstore it wasn’t anywhere. How they managed to cram such a large selection of books into such a pocket-sized store I never figured out. They carried classics for the college crowd, lurid true-crime novels for those who liked that sort, classic science fiction, romance novels, nonfiction, and an entire corner of mystery books at the back of the store. (The Wimsey books were on the bottom shelf.)

They must have had the world’s best distributor, too, because books showed up there almost a month before any other bookseller. Their media book corner was especially appealing. You could tell when one of the networks was going to have a movie or special based on a novel because that novel, with its photo cover, would appear sometimes even two to three months before the movie was released. Novelizations based on movies were also sold there, and I can still tick off the volumes I bought: Cromwell, Strange Report (the mystery series with Anthony Quayle), Red Sky at Morning, The Gathering, The Homecoming, Spencer’s Mountain, The Waltons...

I suspect the habitual cashier, a large, quiet young woman, was also a closet science fiction fan, since I saw my first fanzine at the paperback bookstore, “Night of the Twin Moons,” a Star Trek Sarek-and-Amanda zine. The other note of interest was...the ceiling. Like all good stores trying to cater to the “in” crowd in the 1970s, the paperback bookstore sold posters. However, with the bookshelves along the walls reaching all the way to the ceiling, there was no room to display them. But the ceiling however–big posters of the Partridge Family, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bobby Sherman, and other rock luminaries of the day regarded you below as you shopped. There were even counterculture black light posters and the ubiquitous rainbow unicorns.

So like Noah, two by two I collected Lord Peter–the store even sold the big trade paperback Lord Peter, which contained all of Sayers’ short stories about Wimsey, and was even more difficult to find. It cost...gasp!...$3.95! My mother thought I had gone mad, spending that much for a book!

(The paperback bookstore continued to be a mainstay until it was “remodeled” in the early 1980s: they added new snazzy metal shelves and carpeting, and cleaned the ceiling–and took away 90% of the books. The “ambiance” and mostly empty shelves just didn’t fly. It closed not a year later.)

As for the DVDs, I’m considering also purchasing Clouds of Witness, but am not certain I will go for Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or Five Red Herrings. If I did, it would be solely for Ian Carmichael as Wimsey.

In the late 1980s PBS showed a second series of Wimsey mysteries, these featuring Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane and Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter. Walter wasn’t too bad as Vane, but I never did warm up to Petherbridge, even if he was closer to Sayers’ description of Lord Peter. He always “felt” too unbearably stiff to me, although I can’t imagine Carmichael’s Wimsey proposing to Harriet, either! I notice that there are many people who adore Petherbridge and despise Carmichael. It may simply be a case of “the one you saw first,” like fans of different regeneration of the Doctor.

(Speaking of film versions of Lord Peter, I have in my video collection a great curiosity, an American version of Busman’s Honeymoon, which was re-titled The Haunted Honeymoon and stars Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings. Montgomery is the most unlikely Lord Peter you’ll ever see, although there’s a nice solid British supporting cast, including Sir Seymour Hicks as Bunter.)

Of course all the arrival of the DVDs has done has prompted me to want to re-read most of the books! (Such an ordeal!) Here’s a site that describes the books (including the Jill-Paton-Walsh-completed Thrones, Dominations) and also includes a personal critique.