Unnatural Death – Dorothy L. Sayers

(Hodder e-book 2003, originally published 1927)

Lord Peter Wimsey has, by the time this book opens, already gained a reputation as an amateur sleuth – two characters each refer to events following on from Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. Lord Peter and his friend Detective Inspector Charles Parker are dining at a London restaurant and discussing the Palmer murder case: Lord Peter takes the position that doctors can’t afford to make accusations about deaths of patients they may regard as suspicious, but for which they have no evidence. A man from the next-door table, happening to overhear this discussion, breaks in with his own thoughts – which support Wimsey’s contention – since he is himself a doctor and recently experience the loss of his own practice in a small country town due to his having voiced his suspicions that an elderly patient of his had not died a natural death.

Being invited to tell his tale in more detail, he does so, though suppressing all the names and places involved, including his own. The story which emerges is simple – an old woman with cancer, looked after by her great-niece, who trained as a nurse, and another nurse, died rather suddenly, and – to the doctor’s eyes at least – unexpectedly. She was a stubborn woman who feared the thought of death and was resistant to the idea of making a will, but intended all her money to go to her only surviving relative, the great-niece who looked after her. There was no sign of foul play, and the doctor was forced to conclude that his suspicions were groundless.

Wimsey decides that this is an example of a perfect crime, and determines to investigate, even though the doctor has not made this easy for him. He sends his female agent, Miss Climpson, to ask questions in various small country towns in Hampshire, and once she has discovered the right place, they both start digging a little further. Discovering that the two maids, sisters, formerly employed by the old lady (Miss Dawson) and her great-niece (Mary Whittaker), were dismissed not long after Miss Dawson had a bad spell, Wimsey puts an advert in the papers to find them, in the hope that they may be able to tell him more about the situation.

Unfortunately, the next thing that happens is that Bertha Gotobed, the younger of the two sisters, is found dead in Epping Forest. At first it’s uncertain whether her death is merely coincidental, or is associated with the case, but the arrival of her sister from Canada seems to suggest that Bertha and Evelyn had some knowledge that someone wishes them not to share.

Wound amongst this is the vampish behaviour of a Mrs Forrest, who may or may not know more than she says, the missing claimant from overseas, the curious and frightening experiences of a London solicitor, and the passing of an Act of Parliament.

This is a very cleverly-plotted and well-written detective novel, which starts from this vague premise and works up into an exciting and dangerous case. Wimsey and Parker act almost as equal partners in this book, though Wimsey (as he points out to Dr Carr) makes all the “imbecile suggestions” while Parker goes out and elaborately disproves them. Like many of Sayers’ novels, the guilty person is fairly obvious, though the police and Wimsey’s investigation is more about how and why the crimes were done.

In this book, Sayers portrays two intense female friendships – the first at secondhand of Miss Clara Whittaker and her friend Miss Agatha Dawson, and the second more directly of Mary Whittaker and her friend Vera Findlater. In both one friend is apparently the more dominant, but the dynamic of each friendship is entirely different, and Miss Climpson (who does the most observing of the Whittaker-Findlater relationship) is sure that Vera Findlater is being taken advantage of. The portrayal of the older women’s friendship, from girlhood in the mid nineteenth century to their deaths in the 1920s, is very touching – and it’s nice to see this presentation of their independence and self-knowledge, as well as Clara Whittaker’s success. It’s possible that Sayers intended Mary Whittaker to be a lesbian (I’m unsure whether she intended Miss Findlater to have anything more than a crush on Mary), but she comes across more as asexual, and very self-reliant.

In short, a very interesting, plausible and satisfying detective novel.

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One Response to Unnatural Death – Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Pingback: U is for … UNNATURAL DEATH (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers | Tipping My Fedora

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