Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

Unnatural Death
Dorothy L Sayers
Originally Published 1927
Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Preceded by Clouds of Witness
Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body

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)

Further Reading

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.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

CloudsofWitness
Clouds of Witness
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1926
Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Preceded by Whose Body?
Followed by Unnatural Death

There was a point about two-thirds of the way into Clouds of Witness where I wondered to myself why I hadn’t rated it more highly when I first read it. You see, while I have fond memories of the Lord Peter stories from my early forays into detective fiction I have very little memory of the first few stories.

The setup is rather promising as Lord Peter, upon returning from a trip to Sicily, learns that his brother has been arrested and is set to be tried for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. After quickly gathering some details from a newspaper account, he returns to the family home to poke around with the help of his detective friend Inspector Parker.

Lord Peter’s brother claims that he had confronted Cathcart earlier in the evening about an accusation of cheating at cards. He expects Cathcart to defend himself but instead he walks out saying that he was calling the engagement off anyway. After a restless evening he took a walk and on returning to the house stumbled over the body. He refuses to give any kind of alibi while the sister has locked herself away in her room. Lord Peter will have to save a man who is doing nothing to save himself with little help from his family.

The early part of the story showcase Peter’s methodical approach as they track footprints, follow trails and identify clues around the household. This process is not flashy and there are few surprises with much of their work simply confirming observations already made but I do think Sayers effectively communicates the pressure of needing to find something to clear the brother’s name.

These chapters also provide some much-needed context for Lord Peter, giving the reader a greater sense of who he is and what forces have molded him. I commented in my review of the first novel that the character struck me as flippant and frustrating and while those attributes still exist in this second outing, the character seems softened by comparison with his brother Gerald and their mother not to mention some of the others from their social set.

Sayers also makes some interesting choices in some of the settings she chooses to place him into in the course of this adventure, using the contrast or absurdity of a situation to draw out different parts of his character. A trip to a socialist club for instance not only gives a glimpse into some of Peter’s social and political views, it also fleshes out his relationship with another character and provides some interesting plot developments. He can certainly still be annoying, evasive and appear snobbish but there were more moments in this story where I actually liked him which feels like a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that I felt that the mystery had a promising beginning and I do think that the story touches on some interesting ideas about honor and social values that make it a surprisingly rich read. The problem is that it never takes the material in an unexpected direction.

An example of the sort of thing I am talking about relates to the question of Gerald’s lack of an alibi. There is an obvious explanation that the reader is likely to immediately think of and, what’s more, that Lord Peter considers for a moment in an abstract sense but he never tries applying that idea to the situation. He ought to at least suspect what that explanation may be and yet he seems utterly surprised when the idea suddenly occurs later in the story. There are plenty of other examples.

There is a frustrating disconnect between Lord Peter’s imagination on small details such as the possible meanings of fragments of a letter and his ability to see the bigger picture. If this were rooted in a character issue like his closeness to the investigation then that may have been more understandable but instead it feels like a convenient way to try to slow a story down.

The eventual explanation for what happened on the night of Cathcart’s death is completely underwhelming after chapters of careful investigation and speculation. Too much of the resolution is delivered to Lord Peter rather than proved by his stitching together clues to form a convincing narrative, feeling like a missed opportunity. While there are some very exciting and dramatic moments around the case, those hoping for a solid puzzle to unravel may feel underwhelmed by how little there is ultimately to discover.

There is no denying however that the ending is delivered with some style and while I could get frustrated at pages of solid French writing (translated shortly afterwards into English), I think the effect works nicely to give the sense of a much wider world beyond the events shown here. There is a rather charming and unexpected coda which not only places a fun cap on this story but also goes some way towards showing us Lord Peter and Parkers’ respective personalities.

There are some entertaining adventure sequences throughout the novel with a highlight involving a careless fall that puts Lord Peter’s life in jeopardy. I thought Sayers’ writing clear and easy to follow while the tension of the situation is brilliantly conveyed. I similarly appreciated a very brave action that Lord Peter takes towards the end of the novel which speaks to the character’s sense of dedication and commitment to grow.

For all of its faults, Clouds of Witness is a more entertaining and interesting work than its predecessor. Sayers’ mystery lacks a punchy or unexpected resolution but there are some entertaining action sequences built around it and some nice character moments for Lord Peter. I look forward to reading the next story, Unnatural Death, which is another one I barely remember but which I hope will prove a more complete and challenging work.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

WhoseBody
Whose Body?
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1923
Lord Peter Wimsey #1
Followed by Clouds of Witness

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.