Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

4 Feb

Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers

This wonderfully complicated (yet, at its heart, quite straightforward) mystery is the first of the incomparable Lord Peter Wimsey’s novels¹ by Dorothy L. Sayers. Since this novel was first published back in the early 1920s² there have been a number of editions released, with back cover blurbs ranging from awful to adequate. This one, from amazon.com, is much better than most:

The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder—especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What’s more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.

Indeed, there is a body in the tub, and there is a prominent citizen missing. Wouldn’t it be wonderfully neat if these two were one and the same? Alas, in this case, adding one and one comes up to something in the neighborhood of minus three, and it’s up to Lord Peter to show the police the error of their ways.

As I’ve mentioned before, while the mystery and plotting of these novels are excellent, particularly for this first one and Unnatural Death, what really stays with me and draws me back is the characterization and the dialogue. In Lord Peter and the rest of the characters (the widower Duchess of Denver, Bunter, Detective Inspector Parker, etc.), Ms Sayers has created an unforgettable cast. Part of what makes her books so utterly enjoyable is that no character has too small a part to be realistic.

From poor little Mr Thipps, architect, to the missing Sir Reuben’s maid, each one is fleshed out just enough for the reader to identify them as people, not interchangeable characters. Then, there is the dialogue. For example, this very early exchange between Lord Peter and the inimitable Bunter:

“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.”
“Very, Bunter. Your choice of words is unerring. I wish Eton and Balliol had done as much for me. …”

Or Lord Peter’s reaction to Parker’s narration of the events prior to Sir Reuben’s disappearance:

“And that’s really all?”
“Really all. Except for one very trifling circumstance.”
“I love trifling circumstances,” said Lord Peter, with childish delight; “so many men have been hanged by trifling circumstances. What was it?”

Later, examining the missing man’s bedroom:

“Well, it’s no good jumping at conclusions.”
“Jump? You don’t even crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion. I believe if you caught the cat with her head in the cream-jug you’d say it was conceivable that the jug was empty when she got there.”
“Well, it would be conceivable, wouldn’t it?”

Delicious, absolutely delicious.

And then, there are the footnotes (in this edition, these are at the end of each chapter) and the wonderful use of the English language.

Of course, given the fact that this is fiction, both incidents are related, with Lord Peter very cleverly finding whatever missing links there are between them, for the reader’s delight. As an example, in order to interview Mr Milligan, someone peripherally related to the financier’s disappearance, Lord Peter invents an elaborate charade involving his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. The machination comes perilously close to disaster when both parties happen to meet for tea at a social function, prompting one of my favorite Bunter/Lord Peter exchanges in the full series:

“Lady Swaffham rang up, my lord, and said she hoped your lordship had not forgotten you were lunching with her.”
“I have forgotten, Bunter, and I mean to forget. I trust you told her I had succumbed to lethargic encephalitis suddenly, no flowers by request.”
“Lady Swaffham said, my lord, she was counting on you. She met the Duchess of Denver yesterday—”
“If my sister-in-law’s there I won’t go, that’s flat,” said Lord Peter.
“I beg your pardon, my lord, the elder Duchess.”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“I imagine she came up for the inquest, my lord.”
“Oh, yes—we missed that, Bunter.”
“Yes, my lord. Her Grace is lunching with Lady Swaffham.”
“Bunter, I can’t. I can’t, really. Say I’m in bed with whooping cough, and ask my mother to come round after lunch.”
“Very well, my lord. Mrs. Tommy Frayle will be at Lady Swaffham’s, my lord, and Mr. Milligan—”
“Mr. Who?”
“Mr. John P. Milligan, my lord, and—”
“Good God, Bunter, why didn’t you say so before? Have I time to get there before he does? All right. I’m off. With a taxi I can just—”
“Not in those trousers, my lord,” said Mr. Bunter, blocking the way to the door with deferential firmness.
“Oh, Bunter,” pleaded his lordship, “do let me—just this once. You don’t know how important it is.”
“Not on any account, my lord. It would be as much as my place is worth.”
“The trousers are all right, Bunter.”
“Not for Lady Swaffham’s, my lord. Besides, your lordship forgets the man that ran against you with a milk can at Salisbury.”
And Mr. Bunter laid an accusing finger on a slight stain of grease showing across the light cloth.
“I wish to God I’d never let you grow into a privileged family retainer, Bunter,” said Lord Peter, bitterly, dashing his walking-stick into the umbrella-stand. “You’ve no conception of the mistakes my mother may be making.”
Mr. Bunter smiled grimly and led his victim away.

(For the peace of mind of anyone not familiar with the Dowager Duchess, allow me to tell you that that wonderful grande dame doesn’t make mistakes—never mind not knowing what on earth is going on.)

There is really very little left to say—Whose Body? is a wonderful little mystery and an absolutely wonderful introduction to most of the recurring characters in the Lord Peter Wimsey’s novels.

9 out of 10.

* * * * *

¹ Order of publication (links will take you to my reviews so far)

Whose Body?
Clouds of Witness
Unnatural Death
Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Strong Poison
Five Red Herrings
Have His Carcase
Murder Must Advertise
The Nine Tailors
Gaudy Night
Busman’s Honeymoon
Also, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories.

2 Given recent developments with copyright law, allow me to point out that I got my digital (and so far, only) copy via UPenn’s digital library – A Celebration of Women Writers. Thank you for making Ms Sayers’ work available to everyone today!

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