Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Only three days later, she is dead.
Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?
I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.
The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!
The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.
Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.
Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.
Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!
I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.
The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.
The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.
One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.
Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.
The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.
Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.
Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).
The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.
I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.
Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.
Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.
The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.
So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.
The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)
Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.
I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.
DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.
Nick @ The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book – always interesting!
Bev @ MyReadersBlock describes this as a marvellous vintage mystery that she does not tire of and comments on Sayers’ thoughtful exploration of ethics.