Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers

23 Jun

You guys probably cannot tell, reading the bulk of my reviews, but I do read stuff other than romances.

Case in point:

Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Oh man, my love for Ms Sayers’ characters is probably unhealthy, it is so vast, so deep, so strong! Unnatural Death is the third of Ms Sayers’ novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey, and the one in which the inimitable Miss Climpson is introduced.

The back cover blurb in my copy does the story absolutely no justice:

The wealthy old woman was dead-a trifle sooner than expected. The intricate trail of horror and senseless murder led from a beautiful Hampshire village to a fashionable London flat and a deliberate test of amour-staged by the debonair sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

Okay, now forget that awful paragraph; it has nothing to do with the novel.

As the story starts, Lord Peter and his good friend Detective Inspector Parker are dining in a small restaurant in Soho when another diner, overhearing their conversation, shares a story with them: A patient of his, an old lady suffering from recurring cancer, died a few years prior. There are no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death, except the doctor’s own belief that she should have lived at least a couple months more. After the surviving relative authorizes an autopsy, during which nothing amiss is noted, the good doctor finds himself persona non grata in the little town-while still puzzled by the medical mystery surrounding the relatively sudden demise of his erstwhile patient.

This story, which in itself seems mostly innocuous, sparks two hundred and fifty pages of ever so slowly increasing tension: from a death that roused little to no suspicion, to a string of seemingly unrelated-yet most definitely suspicious-events, to the discovery of one of the coldest killers in fiction.

Lord Peter sees a murder where everyone else sees either a medical mistake or professional arrogance, but his lordship is not easily deterred. Partly by nagging his friend Parker, partly by involving the excellent Ms Climpson, and partly out of Lord Peter’s sheer stubbornness, the reality of the crime becomes ever more evident. And the killer, ever more desperate to hide any trail leading to the truth.

So far I have read eight of the ten Lord Peter novels, and nineteen of the short stories. Out of all these, I believe that this novel, Unnatural Death, and Whose Body? have the best mystery plots. That is not to say that Ms Sayers’ didn’t write great mystery plots, because by golly she did. But these two stories are, to my mind, her finest.

And yet, the best part of the Lord Peter Wimsey books is not the mystery, as good as it may be, but the characters and the dialogue-both external and internal.

The story is told basically from three perspectives: Lord Peter himself, Parker, and Ms Climpson. (In fact, if I have a complaint about this story, it is how little of Bunter there is in it *sigh* I miss my Bunter). One of the joys of reading these novels is how the tone of the narrative changes depending on point of view-while the overall voice of the story is Ms Sayers’, her characterization is so rich and well layered, that the reader could identify from which character’ point of view any given scene is narrated without being told.

This is what makes these novels keepers, the ones you read and read again until you can quote long paragraphs.

For example, in the scene leading up to Miss Climpson’s introduction, Lord Peter is vague enough to give Parker a rather equivocal impression. Afterwards, they have this exchange:

“May I ask-?” began Parker.

“It is not what you think,” said his lordship, earnestly.

“Of course not,” agreed Parker.

“There, I knew you had a nasty mind. Even the closest of one’s friends turn out to be secret thinkers. They think in private thoughts which they publicly repudiate.”

“Don’t be a fool. Who is Miss Climpson?”

(here Lord Peter waxes lyrical for a bit, concluding with:)

“One of these days they will put up a statue to me, with an inscription:

“‘To the Man who Made

Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy

Without Violence to their Modesty

or Exertion to Himself’”

A bit later in the book, Parker thinks to himself: “Damn Wimsey! Why couldn’t he let Ms Dawson rest quietly in her grave? There she was, doing no harm to anybody-and Wimsey must insist on prying into her affairs and bringing the inquiry to such a point that Parker simply had to take official notice of it.”

Then we have the oh so wonderful Ms Climpson. A goodly number of her scenes are told through her letters, reporting her progress to Lord Peter. Reading them is to see through Ms Climpson’s eyes. Her nature-scrupulously honest, observant, good judge of human nature and feelings-shines in every page where she is.

Unnatural Death gets 9 out of 10, and a permanent spot in my keeper shelves.

* * *

Review of Strong Poison here and review of Have His Carcase here.

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3 Responses to “Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers”

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  3. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers « Her Hands, My Hands - 04/02/2012

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