Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Pub 1923
I’ve had more interest lately in murder mysteries, inspired by my reading Louise Penny last year and Iona Winslow this year. Dorothy L. Sayers came up in a search of something else, suggested as, “you might also like…” and since this one would tick a few more boxes on the old list, I thought I’d give it a try. And very glad am I that I did.
Contemporary of Agatha Christie – both the settings and the time of writing – the novel and characters share several similarities. Set in the early 1920s, we see the hangover of World War I, the persistence of classes, the novelties of technologies such as the telephone and the the bus, and the lack of technologies in crime scene detection. The main characters resemble the familiar tropes in similarly set novels, including Lord Peter Wimsey (a fastidious, idiosyncratic, snob who practices detection as a delightful hobby rather than a vocation), the Duchess Dowager (the grand dame, smart old bird who indulges her son’s dabbling in detection), Inspector Parker (the level headed and methodical police officer and friend of Wimsey, who back-channels the more official side of the investigation), Inspector Sugg (the pompous and ineffectual official who blusters and blunders through the investigation), and Mr. Bunter (the stalwart and super-efficient valet with unceasing devotion to Wimsey rooted in their mutual war experience). Each of these is a bit of a caricature of a familiar standard in other better known detective series. Wimsey is a blend of Poirot and Wooster, perhaps more down to earth with his recurring bouts of shell shock. (NB: I have never read any PG Woodhouse, something to be rectified next year.)
The novel tells an interesting double-murder mystery, with plenty of wrong turnings and red herrings, as well as some amusing misunderstandings that don’t get in the way of the mystery but reveal more of the main characters and serve as diversions. The mystery itself is not that mysterious, although still quite clever, and all is neatly resolved at the end (although the letter from the murderer explaining how the crimes were executed is perhaps a heavy handed and less than satisfying way of concluding than the Poirot “I’ve gathered you all here…” reveal). Even more enjoyable were the very clever turns of phrase from Sayers, some of which were of laugh out loud quality:
- about a balding man: “(he) was a small, nervous man, whose flaxen hair was beginning to abandon the unequal struggle with destiny.”
- about cheese: As he sat sadly consuming that impassive pale substance known to the English as “cheese” unqualified (for there are cheeses which go openly by their names, as Stilton, Camembert, Gruyère, Wensleydale, or Gogonzola, but “cheese” is cheese and everywhere the same)…”
- about impatience: “‘Take your time,’ said the Coroner, at the same time robbing his remark of all conviction by an impatient glance at his watch.”
This was a good introduction to Sayers, and more will follow in the future, I’m sure. For now, I shall move on to other more list-relevant books.
Fate: charity shop, not because it was bad but because I shall not read it again and this copy is nothing special.