John C Adams Reviews 'Whose Body?'
Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers
A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery
(Victor Gollancz, 1923)
Dorothy L Sayers was one of the most popular writers in the Golden Age of Murder Mystery in the Twenties and Thirties. She wrote eleven Lord Peter Wimsey novels, plus numerous short stories, before pivoting via a twelfth novel, 'Gaudy Night', which features Wimsey and his future wife, to straight literature.
Sayers was one of the first women to earn a degree from Oxford, studying Classics and Modern Languages at Somerville College. I studied PPE there from 1990 to 1993, and the presence of those early pioneers in women's higher education such as Sayers was still very strongly felt during my time, even as the college was moving from being a women's college to mixed education.
As the novel opens, a body has been found naked (besides a pince nez) in the bath of a small house in Battersea occupied by Mr Thipps and his ageing mother. Wimsey is alerted to its discovery by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, who seems to be socially connected to almost every character in this murder mystery novel in some way. He joins forces with Parker, a police detective based at Scotland Yard, and together they set about solving the mystery of whose body it is, and enjoying themselves by disparaging the other detective, Suggs, involved in the case along the way.
The mystery body is soon linked to the disappearance of an eminent financier. Wimsey employs close observation to prove that the body is not that of Sir Reuben Levy (its teeth are in an advanced state of decay, and the physical condition of the hands and body indicate a labourer rather than someone with a desk-based occupation). Yet it seems that the body has been carefully prepared to look like Sir Reuben: a recent shave, the addition of the glasses and the stench of carbolic soap used to remove fleas. Sir Reuben is still missing, and Wimsey uses a mixture of his social connections and inspection of all the physical evidence to solve the mystery of the body's identity and the disappearance of Sir Reuben.
The novel was notable for its casual humour, which I rather enjoyed because it was almost always in the form of witty observations from Sayers or repartee on the part of Wimsey. He is a likeable character, committed to the justice of solving the mystery in order to deflect himself from morose reflections on his unresolved battlefield trauma from the war, where he served as a major.
The typical structure of the detective story was deftly employed to satisfy the specific expectations of the mystery reader. The genre was quite fixed by this time, courtesy of Poe, Conan Doyle and Christie, so an author departed from its boundaries at their peril. In this sense, and in the underlying characterisation and relationships between Wimsey, his butler Bunter and Parker the detective it was an unqualified success and very enjoyable. Wimsey has his sidekicks, they disparage the more plodding nature of the assigned detective Suggs and Suggs' early arrest of precisely the wrong person, and at the same time Wimsey and co inch ever closer to the truth. The concluding plot twist was credible without being too easy to guess.
'Whose Body?' differs slightly from the work of other murder mystery writers in that Wimsey frequently refers to himself as being like (or occasionally unlike) Sherlock Holmes. Quite often Sayers mentions how this story is different from detective fiction, which of course only serves to remind the reader that this tale is placed comfortably within that genre. It is passed off as a joke by the author and by Wimsey, whom the reader is encouraged not to take too seriously, and it never interferes with the complexity of the plot or the satisfying nature of the conclusion.
Overall, I loved it.
Thank you for joining me for this 'Mysteries on Monday' blog post from John C Adams. My next post is on Friday. See you then!
In the meantime, please share your thoughts on murder mysteries you'd recommend in the comments section below.
Thank you to photographers Cernasite, Menno Groenmen and Alexsandra Banic for providing the cover images for this blog via freeimages.com