His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.
Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey is a dilettante who solves mysteries for his own amusement; Wimsey is an archetype for the British gentleman detective. Lord Peter is often assisted by his valet and former army colleague Mervyn Bunter, his good friend and future brother-in-law, Inspector/Chief Inspector Charles “Parker Bird” Parker, and later by his future wife Harriet Vane.
Born in 1890, Wimsey is described as being of average height, with straw-coloured hair, a beaked nose, and a vaguely foolish face. He also possessed considerable intelligence and athletic ability, evidenced by his playing cricket for Oxford University while earning a First. He created a spectacularly successful publicity campaign for Whifflet cigarettes while working for Pym’s Publicity Ltd., and at age 40 was able to turn three cartwheels in the office corridor, stopping just short of the boss’s open office door (Murder Must Advertise).
Among Lord Peter’s hobbies, in addition to criminology, is collecting incunabula. He is an expert on matters of food, wine, male fashion, and classical music. He excels at the piano, including Bach’s works for keyboard instruments. One of Lord Peter’s cars is a 12-cylinder 1927 Daimler four-seater, which he calls “Mrs. Merdle” after a character in Dickens’ Little Dorrit who “hated fuss”.
Lord Peter Wimsey’s ancestry begins with the 12th-century knight Gerald de Wimsey, who went with King Richard The Lion Heart on the Third Crusade and took part in the Siege of Acre.
Lord Peter was the second of the three children of Mortimer Wimsey, 15th Duke of Denver, and Honoria Lucasta Delagardie, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. The Dowager Duchess is witty and intelligent, and strongly supports her younger son, whom she plainly prefers over his less intelligent, more conventional older brother, Gerald, the 16th Duke. Gerald’s snobbish wife, Helen, who detests Wimsey, and their devil-may-care heir, Viscount St. George (Wimsey’s nephew, who likes him), also make appearances in the novels. So does Lady Mary, the younger sister of the Duke and Lord Peter, who leans strongly to the political left and scandalizes her family by marrying a policeman of working class origins.
Lord Peter was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with a first-class degree in history. He was also an outstanding cricketer, whose performance would still be well remembered decades later, leading to the near unmasking of his incognito in Murder Must Advertise.
Wimsey served on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, reaching the rank of Major in the Rifle Brigade. He was appointed an Intelligence Officer, and on one occasion he infiltrated the staff room of a German officer. While in the army, he met Sergeant Mervyn Bunter, who had previously been in service. In 1918, Wimsey was severely wounded by artillery fire near Caudry in France. He suffered a breakdown due to shell shock and was eventually sent home. Wimsey and Bunter arranged that if they were both to survive the war, Bunter would become Wimsey’s valet. Bunter takes care to address Wimsey as “My Lord”; nevertheless, he is a friend as well as a servant, and Wimsey, again and again, expresses amazement at Bunter’s high efficiency and competence in virtually every sphere of life. Bunter often proves instrumental in Lord Peter’s investigations.
After the war Lord Peter was ill for many months, recovering at the family’s ancestral home in Duke’s Denver. Wimsey was for a time unable to give servants any orders whatsoever since his wartime experience made him associate the giving of an order with causing the death of the person to whom the order was given. Bunter arrived and, with the approval of the Dowager Duchess, took up his post as valet. Bunter moved Wimsey to a London flat at 110A Piccadilly, W1, while Wimsey recovered. Even much later, however, Wimsey would have relapses—especially when his actions caused a murderer to be hanged. As noted in Whose Body?, on such occasions Bunter would take care of Wimsey and tenderly put him to bed, and they would revert to being “Major Wimsey” and “Sergeant Bunter”.
Lord Peter begins his hobby of investigation by recovering The Attenbury Emeralds in 1921. He also becomes good friends with Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, a sergeant in 1921 who eventually rises to the rank of Commander. However, Wimsey is not entirely well. At the end of the investigation in Whose Body? (1923) he hallucinates that he is back in the trenches.
In Strong Poison, Lord Peter encounters Harriet Vane, a cerebral, Oxford-educated mystery writer while she is on trial for the murder of her former lover. He falls in love with her at first sight. Wimsey saves her from the gallows, but she believes that gratitude is not a good foundation for marriage, and politely but firmly declines his frequent proposals.
By 1935 Lord Peter is in continental Europe, acting as an unofficial attaché to the British Foreign Office. Harriet Vane contacts him about a problem she has been asked to investigate in her college at Oxford (Gaudy Night). At the end of their investigation, Vane finally accepts Wimsey’s proposal of marriage.
The couple marry on 8 October 1935, at St. Cross Church, Holywell Street, Oxford, as depicted in the opening collection of letters and diary entries in Busman’s Honeymoon. The Wimseys’ honeymoon at Talboys, a house in east Hertfordshire near where Harriet had lived as a child, that Peter has bought for her as a wedding present. There they find the body of the previous owner, and spend their honeymoon solving the case, thus having the eponymous “Busman’s Honeymoon“.
Over the next five years, the Wimseys have three sons: Bredon Delagardie Peter Wimsey (born October 1936); Roger Wimsey (born 1938), and Paul Wimsey (born 1940).