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.

 

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Unpleasantness

“Books… are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.”

I didn’t plan on reading this but I finished Perfume last week and the copy of The Quickening Maze I’d ordered was taking ages to arrive at the library. This seemed like a nice way of filling the time while I waited. Of course, no sooner had I checked out The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and walked back to my office then my phone pinged with the notification that my requested library book had arrived and was now awaiting collection. Not to worry. I can’t say that being forced to read some Dorothy L. Sayers in the meantime is any sort of hardship.

This is only the second of Sayers’ books that I’ve read so I’m still a very new convert.  This one doesn’t begin as a murder mystery but as a discreet investigation into the death of Old General Fentiman, who passes away quietly in his armchair by the fire at his gentleman’s club, The Bellona. His lawyer calls in Lord Peter Wimsey, the suave aristocratic detective, to determine a precise time of death and thus avert a legal dispute over the General’s estate. The case is of particular importance to Lord Peter as one of the legatees is his friend George Fentiman, whose mental health and livelihood are both at stake if the time of death is decided unfavourably. It takes a few twists and turns, this story, but I think most readers will guess pretty early on that the old General didn’t die quite as peaceably as Sayers leads us to believe at the beginning.

You can tell that this is a little earlier in the series and in Sayers’ writing career: it’s not quite as polished as The Nine Tailors, the plot ambles along slowly at times and there’s not nearly enough Bunter in it. This last one is probably the worst crime of all. Her scene setting is pretty perfect though and I can never get enough of the dialogue, particularly any scene in which Wimsey uses the phrases “What rot!”, “Jolly good!” or (my personal favourite) “Bung ho!”. He brings such humour to everything, without spoiling the sombre mood.

“Take him away!” said Fentiman, “Take him away. He’s been dead two days! So are you! So am I! We’re all dead and we never noticed it!” 

I love the fact that Sayers’ characters are not merely plot devices, as Christie’s can be sometimes. Few of the characters in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club are black and white, nor are they as wicked as you might suspect at the beginning. George Fentiman is the first to spring to mind here. I imagine it would’ve been quite easy for Sayers to portray George quite simply as a comic figure, a misogynistic brute and a layabout, but instead she treats the emotive subject of his shell shock and poverty with real feeling. Lord Peter’s sympathy with George, and his reluctance to involve himself in the case at all, is quite touching.

I guessed the culprit before the end (just as I did last time) but I didn’t really mind. More shocking, I thought, wasn’t the unmasking of the villain but the way in which Wimsey dealt with the situation.  These were very different times indeed.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’d like to find under the Christmas tree

toptentuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is all about the books we’d like to receive for Christmas this year.

I’m not really one for Christmas lists or TBR lists but here are some of the books I wouldn’t mind seeing under the tree this year:

1 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I’ve liked Julian Barnes’ books ever since I read A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters for A’Level English. This one got the Booker prize and I’m yet to see it pop up in any of my usual secondhand shop haunts… both are promising signs, right?

2 Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Cheap copies of this book seem fairly elusive and the copy at my local library always seems to be on reserve. I know enough about the plot to wonder if it might not be a little gruesome for me but, goddammit, I’m determined to get my grubby mitts on a copy one day whether I like it or not.

3 Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I think I’ve just about forgiven Dickens for the agony of The Old Curiosity Shop now. For the past year or so I’ve stuck to just rereading my old favourites but it’s probably about time to move on and try something new. Hard Times was the first one I thought of but it could go any way really.

4 The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible is one of the few modern(ish) books I’ve read more than once so I’ve been desperate to read this ever since it came out. Plus, it’s got Frida Kahlo in it. ‘nuff said.

5 Katherine by Anya Seton. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m kind of obsessed with medieval women so I’m really looking forward to reading this one day. It was on the BBC Big Read Top 100 but I have never once seen a secondhand copy anywhere in all my TWELVE YEARS of searching. It better be bloody good.

6 The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. I loved both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and I’ve heard excellent things about this book. I conveniently bought it for my best friend last Christmas so I shall probably end up borrowing it back so I can read it myself!

7 Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. The Nine Tailors, which I read in May, was my first DLS book and I enjoyed it hugely. I’m going to investigate some of the other books in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, this being the first. I thought it’d be best to start from the beginning and then I can work through them in order, if I enjoy them enough.

8 Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker. This was on one of my ‘suggested’ reading lists at university and I’ve always been a bit disappointed that I never got round to it. It’s another one that never seems to pop up in bookshops so I might have to bite the bullet with this one and buy it online. Eurgh.

9 Precious Bane by Mary Webb. I don’t know much at all about Mary Webb but this book was the subject of an enthusiastic review by one of my colleagues last week. Last time I looked it was in stock at the library so it should be a relatively easy one to cross off my TBR list!

10 Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve never read anything by Gaskell but recently everybody seems to be recommending her to me. I don’t really mind which one of her books I read but Wives and Daughters is the one I know least about.

It occurs to me now that maybe I need an Amazon wishlist. I will bear that in mind for next year!

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Graveyard

“…What’s that? It mayn’t be the right letter? Rot! It is the right letter. It’s damn well got to be the right letter, and we’re going to go straight along to the Cat And Fiddle, where the port is remarkable and the claret not to be despised, to celebrate our deed of darkness and derring do!”

I finished The Wombles on Wednesday lunchtime, which left me short of reading material for the train journey home. Usually when this happens (it’s pretty common) I end up making a mad dash to the library for an Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse to tide me over for a few days. Alas, both were a bit thin on the ground this time so I came away with this instead, my first Dorothy L. Sayers book. I know she has a bit of a cult following so I was intrigued…

The Nine Tailors is in the Lord Peter Wimsey series but that really didn’t mean anything to me. I quickly discovered that Wimsey (it’s a silly name) is a sort of gentleman detective who solves crimes as a hobby with the aid of his loyal valet Bunter. On paper it sounds almost like a cross between Christie and Wodehouse but, not having read any of the other books in the series, I’m not sure I can do him justice here. There isn’t much of an introduction to Lord Peter in this novel so I had a quick look at Wikipedia for some context. It wasn’t strictly necessary though; The Nine Tailors works as a standalone novel without a backstory.

In this novel Lord Peter is summoned to the damp East Anglian fens to investigate a death in the isolated village of Fenchurch St Paul. The parish sexton has uncovered a handless, disfigured corpse hidden in someone else’s grave and no one seems to know who he is or how he came to be there. It becomes a surprisingly complicated case involving a twenty year old jewel theft, a cryptic cypher and a wartime case of mistaken identity. Much of the action takes place around the parish church and the title is a reference to change ringing, a system of bell ringing that was apparently quite popular at the time.

I liked this book… but then, of course I would do; it’s almost as if Sayers wrote it with some of my favouritest things in mind:

Golden Age murder mystery? Check.

Posh chaps who say ‘My dear sir…’ and ‘Jolly ho!’? Check.

Set in the Fens? Check.

Excessive research and attention to detail? Check.

Maps, plans and drawings included? Check.

In fact, it’s almost like Sayers happily complied with all my requests and then (knowing how much of a geek I am) chucked in a bit of medieval church architecture for an extra treat. Bloody brilliant.

It’s an odd sort of book really. I worked out the identity of the victim pretty quickly – before Lord Peter even – but I was having such a good time that this didn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t think the crime is the most interesting thing about this novel. I know that sounds weird but Sayers does such a good job of setting the scene that you can almost forget that this is a whodunit.  She lets the murder and the investigation fade into the background so the bleakness of the fenland landscape can take over. Her descriptions of the church and village are detailed and she captures the desolate, brooding atmosphere of the fens beautifully. There aren’t that many novels set in my part of the country so to me this novel felt a bit like home. There’s a kind of haunting eeriness to it that I would have loved even if it hadn’t been set on my home patch.

And then there are the bells. I wonder if Sayers just wanted to show off her research here or if she was just really, really enthusiastic about bell ringing? I also wonder how many readers have been chased away by all those long passages devoted to the bells?

“The change ringer does, indeed, distinguish musical differences between one method of producing his permutations and another; he avers, for instance, that where the hinder bells run 7, 5, 6 or 5, 6, 7 or 5, 7, 6 the music is always prettier, and can detect and approve, where they occur, the consecutive fifths of Tittums and the cascading thirds of the Queen’s change.”

Er…. pardon? A bit of an introduction to change ringing might have been nice before she jumped on in but I don’t think knowledge of how it works is really necessary. My enjoyment certainly wasn’t hindered by not knowing anything about bell ringing beforehand. It sounded quite interesting. Besides, I quite liked the bells; they’re almost characters in their own rights. There’s something a bit dark and malevolent about them.

It took me a little bit by surprise, this book. I was hoping for something simple to keep me entertained for a few days… but this was much better than that. I like the fact that Sayers makes you work quite hard – harder than Christie – and it’s more than worth the effort when you reach those final apocalyptic flood scenes at the end. If you take away the crime novel label you’re left with something that’s actually a good piece of literature in itself. I’ll definitely look out for other Dorothy L. Sayers books.