Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

(Rising Star Visionary Press e-book, originally published in 1923)

Whose Body? is the first of Sayers’ detective novels to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman sleuth. When we first encounter him he is about to go to a sale of Lord Brocklebury’s library, where there are a few books he wants to buy, but has forgotten the catalogue. Therefore, he returns to his flat on Piccadilly, and is in time to speak to his mother – the Dowager Duchess of Denver – who informs him that Mr Thipps, an architect living in Battersea, who has been doing some work on the church in Denver, has that morning found the body of an unknown man in his bath. Lord Peter decides that he must investigate, and so Bunter, his manservant, is despatched to the sale in his master’s place. Lord Peter goes off to Battersea to observe, to hear the story from Thipps, and avoids Inspector Sugg, who has been put in charge of the case.

Lord Peter’s friend, Charles Parker, a police inspector at Scotland Yard, contacts Lord Peter about the possible connection between his case – the disappearance of eminent financier Sir Reuben Levy – and that of the unknown body in the bath. The body isn’t that of Sir Reuben’s, though there is a superficial resemblance between the two men, and for a while Lord Peter and Parker investigate the two cases separately. There is a spectacular red herring in the form of an elderly lawyer called Crimplesham, who is as bewildered as everyone else to be caught up in the case.

Sayers’ plotting is deft and economical – there is only one murder – though characterisation isn’t her strong suit in this book. Lord Peter’s shell-shock resulting from service in the Great War is alluded to, and his ambivalence at “hunting down murderers for fun” is explored in more detail in later books. The relationship between himself and Parker is nicely drawn, though, with Parker acting as the restrained note of caution to some of Lord Peter’s wilder theories. And it’s obvious that Lord Peter is a good detective – he observes, and makes deductions, rather than theorising and guessing – which I like in an amateur sleuth.

It’s a while since I last read this, and I’d forgotten how sneery Sayers and her characters are about Jews. Sir Reuben is only just tolerated – perhaps even respected – though it’s obvious that he’s an exception, and even characters supposed to be likeable exhibit some anti-semitism. Sayers does at least treat Wimsey with some degree of detachment in this book:

… His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola …

(ch. 1)

But the first chapter doesn’t exactly make you like him much – he starts off as a wealthy young man-about-town with nothing to do but buy rare books and who can afford to employ a valet. By the end of the book, however, he’s much less annoying, and the reader can see the responsibility of finding the murderer and knowing the effect this has on other people seems to sober him.

Sayers can be a very evocative writer – the part where she describes the exhumation is almost surprising after what has gone before:

The vile, raw fog tore your throat and ravaged your eyes. You could not see your feet. You stumbled in your walk over poor men’s graves.

The feel of Parker’s old trench-coat beneath your fingers was comforting. You had felt it in worse places. You clung on now for fear you should get separated. The dim people moving in front of you were like Brocken spectres.

(ch. 12)

The book is, however, probably the best place to start reading Sayers’ detective novels, since her characters do grow, change and develop over the course of the series, though it isn’t the best of her books by any means (that accolade probably belongs to The Nine Tailors.

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3 Responses to Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Jenny says:

    The Nine Tailors is the best, really? Not Gaudy Night? I haven’t read all of the Wimsey books yet, but Gaudy Night has been by far my favorite of the ones I have read.

    • Ela says:

      Gaudy Night is a great book, and a lot of people like it best because of its focus on Harriet (and, of course, the culmination of their courtship) and the Oxford setting, but it’s almost not a detective novel.

      The Nine Tailors is, however, a proper detective novel (with the murder of an unknown man to be solved), beautifully written, with engaging, quirky characters, a fantastic setting, and a really unusual murder. It’s also quite a lot shorter and less discursive than Gaudy Night, though there’s a lot going on in it. Actually, mentioning it now makes me want to go and read it again!

  2. Pingback: DISCUSSION: Unacceptable views? | Ela's Book Blog

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