Whose Body? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers

“Bunter!”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.” 

“Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.” 

WhoseBodyBy happy chance this book, which has been on my mental TBR list for ages, came free at the library just as I was coming to the end of Daughter of Fortune last week. After DoF it was just what the doctor ordered: short, entertaining and containing no inane references at all to ridiculous love affairs in which young women know instinctively how to please a man in bed in spite of their youthful years and cloistered upbringings. Thank goodness for that.

This is the first in the Lord Wimsey series so I was half expecting some sort of backstory or introduction to the aristocratic detective. But no, we jump right on in with the news that the body of an unknown man – wearing nothing but a pair of gold pince nez – has inexplicably been discovered in the bathtub of a total stranger. Of course on hearing this Lord Peter is determined to visit the scene, where he hears that on the same night as the body mysteriously appeared a wealthy banker vanished from his home a short distance away. Could the body in the bath belong to the missing financier? Is it just an unlikely coincidence? Or is an unknown hand trying to put the investigators off the scent?

Thankfully Lord Peter is pretty adept at handling these sorts of situations and he does so with the charm and finesse that I’ve come to expect. I’m not too worried about the absence of a backstory, especially as we’re instead treated to such brief, throwaway gems as this:

“His long amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.”

Of course, I had no idea what the man was talking about half the time but I’ve come to quite like that about Lord Peter.

Whose Body? is clearly the work of an inexperienced novelist and I don’t think it’ll become a fast favourite. The plot is interesting enough but it’s fairly easy to solve the crime and the motive, I thought, wasn’t very clear at all. Occasionally Sayers rambles on at length, proving points that could just as easily be made in a few paragraphs and then, to twist the knife, it’s all wrapped up neatly with a confession letter at the end. Oh for shame, Dorothy! I expected better. But, in the end, we can forgive a novice writer who was still finding her feet and I think it’s a fair foundation for the rest of the series.

Weirdly enough, my lasting memories of this book will probably not involve Lord Peter but will relate entirely to Reuben Levy, the missing banker. There are a couple of snide remarks at his expense and, on one notable occasion, Lord Peter’s mother goes on at length about how there’s really absolutely definitely nothing wrong with Jews, even if they do have some funny ideas etc etc. I think it was probably well intentioned on Sayers part – perhaps to show that we’re all much too modern and open-minded to hold with anti-Semitism round here – but all the Duchess really goes on to do is repeat a load of ignorant and backward ideas. I’ve read more offensive comments in literature (these views were pretty common at the time after all) and I don’t believe Sayers intended it to be anything more than a joke at the Duchess’s expense, but I was a little bemused by it all the same.

I’m pleased to say, anyway, that Lord Peter expresses absolutely no opinion on the subject.

 

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