Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries hold a special place in my heart. My father was a huge fan and introduced the stories to me through the Carmichael and Petherbridge television adaptations in my early teens. They were probably the first GAD novels I read and while I didn’t appreciate that at the time, I do give them credit for inspiring me to try more.
At the point I am writing this however it has been well over a decade since I last read any of the novels. Given how much more widely read I have become in the detective genre since then I have been curious to see whether the series would still hold up and what I would make of them in the context of the other Golden Age fiction I have read.
The decision to kick things off with Whose Body? was an easy one, and not just because it is the very first of the Wimsey novels to be published. The real reason I started with this one is that it’s the only one that I had no memory of at all. I knew I had read it but I could only remember the question over the identity of the body and even then that was only in the loosest of details.
Of course once I began to read some of the details came back to me although, it must be said, I was surprised how few of the moments that felt familiar are plot points. Instead it was the little moments and asides in the novel that fleshed out the characters or struck me as amusing such as Bunter’s apologetic note to Lord Peter as he recounted how he served his brandy and cigars to a servant he was looking to get information from or the very affecting sequence in which we see Lord Peter experience flashbacks to his wartime experience.
Perhaps that reflects that the novel finds more interest in its character relationships and moments of levity than from its plotting which is relatively pedestrian. I can say that this is only the second best-plotted mysterious body left in someone else’s room story I have read in the past month (for a slightly more interesting use of this starting point see John Rhode’s The Paddington Mystery which was published two years later).
The plot is as follows: Lord Peter goes to inspect a body that has been found in a bathtub. The occupants of the home claim that the man’s identity is unknown to them and cannot account for his presence there. There is some suspicion that the body may belong to a prominent financier who went missing at about the same time the body showed up but when the man’s wife comes to identify the body she is sure it is not her husband.
Lord Peter becomes sure that the disappearance of the financier and the appearance of this corpse must be linked but the challenge for him, and the reader, is to figure out what was done and how. This is initially quite an intriguing question but I felt that mechanically the crime was quite simple while the cast of characters was small enough that, once you are sure there was some foul play, there were limited choices in who to suspect. In short, the crime itself is a bit of a flop and held limited interest for me.
Let’s turn instead then to the central, recurring characters and the obvious place to start is Lord Peter. Rereading this I was surprised by just how flippant and frustrating he can be and while I cannot be sure, I suspect that had I started by reading this book with no knowledge of the character or later adventures that I would never have finished this one, let alone gone on to read the series.
In later books it becomes clear that some of the personality he shows here is affectation, designed to throw people off and lead them to not view him as a threat. He is able to use this at times to get suspects to become overconfident, sometimes accidentally betraying themselves. It is a shtick and we certainly see him using his status and flighty persona to help him gain access in a difficult situation. For the most part though it feels much more a part of his personality as he shifts focus between discussing the case and the rare books he wants to buy and so it’s hard not to be frustrated with a character who seems to be treating murder as a game.
There are some moments here where I think we see the character emerge as interesting in his own right, not merely as an investigator, and I particularly appreciate his relationship with his manservant and old army batman Bunter. This, for me, is the heart of the early Wimsey novels and the standout sequence is that flashback to his time in the trenches, worrying that he is hearing the sounds of German tunneling beneath them.
That sequence really tells us so much about this pair and, when we learn that the stress of investigation may be in part responsible for it happening, we get a sense that Lord Peter is not just playing amateur sleuth for kicks but that he is willing to discomfort himself to pursue truth and justice. And in that moment Bunter becomes more than a stock servant with a skill at photography, he becomes a loyal carer and companion.
Sadly a lovely, rich character beat cannot overcome what feels like a very slight and rather routine mystery. Happily Lord Peter would have more interesting cases to come so if you’re new to the character I would suggest jumping in later in his adventures and returning to this at a later point.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An artist/photographer (Who) – Bunter has another professional occupation but he plays a significant role in this investigation.
6 thoughts on “Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers”
For what it’s worth, we agree in almost every particular on this one: I barely remember it, what I do recall is pretty much exactly the moments you mention, and I too feel that the relationship with Bunter is captured amazingly in that PTSD sequence. I seem to recall that the mechanics of the body in the bathtub are faintly ridiculous, but then the crime elements of Sayers’ novels always seem a little unlikely and ridiculous to me (and that’s coming from someone who will happily swallow an impossible crime whole…!).
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I am hoping that the other stories hold up a little better when I get around to revisiting them!
I think if I had read this at the time it came out, I might have marked Sayers’s name down for future consideration; as you note, the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter shows real promise and is well above the cardboard level of her contemporaries. But what has always bothered me about this book is that the moral standards of the time didn’t allow Sayers to describe the dead naked body sufficiently, even in roundabout oblique terms, to say whether or not it is circumcised. Why did Sayers choose a murder with this kind of information at its heart, when she wasn’t even legally allowed to mention the clue?
The problem of describing a naked corpse is even more in the forefront in Gladys Mitchell’s first novel, Speedy Death. Even more important and even more aggravating.
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I think you make a really good point about how she chooses to utilize a clue that she cannot describe. It does take what should be an interesting moment that could have been quite striking and dulls it.
The character work is certainly far ahead of its contemporaries and I would like to think I would have got around to Clouds of Witness eventually had I been reading this at the time.