RogerBW's Blog

Unnatural Death, Dorothy Sayers 20 February 2018

1927 mystery, third of Sayers' books about Lord Peter Wimsey. While dining and talking about crime, Wimsey meets a doctor who's lost his practice because he was unhappy about a death (the patient was certainly dying, but should have lasted several more months) and insisted on an autopsy – to the horror of the country town where it happened. Nobody else thinks there's any possibility of a crime, but Wimsey takes an interest.

And, by the time it's all over, two more people will be dead. These books have been taking different angles on Peter's hobby of amateur detection, and there's a repeated theme here that, if he hadn't started poking around and asking questions, it's quite possible that the murderer (having got what was wanted) would have stopped there and led a blameless life thereafter.

"But I still think, you know, we ought to get some evidence that actual crimes have been committed. Call me finicking, if you like. If you could suggest a means of doing away with these people so as to leave no trace, I should feel happier about it.'

Well, probably not, as it turns out, in this case; some of the other murders were planned before the investigation started, and at least one had already been attempted. But that doesn't invalidate the core point: will an investigation, into a situation that everyone seems happy about, simply make things worse? It will certainly cause grief and pain.

"While I know nothing to the young lady's disadvantage, I have always held it inadvisable that persons should know too exactly how much they stand to gain by the unexpected decease of other persons. In case of any unforseen accident, their heirs may find themselves in an equivocal position, where the fact of their possessing such knowledge might – if made public – be highly prejudicial to their interests."

The book is divided into three sections: "The Medical Problem", "The Legal Problem", and "The Medico-Legal Problem", though they aren't quite as clearly separated as that would imply. Sayers very clearly had two big ideas for the technicalities of the mystery: n cnegvphyne cvrpr bs yrtvfyngvba (gur Nqzvavfgengvba bs Rfgngrf Npg, juvpu punatrq gur vaurevgnapr ehyrf va pnfrf bs vagrfgnpl) naq jung unf fvapr orpbzr n pyvpué, pnhfvat hagenprnoyr qrngu ol vawrpgvba bs na nve rzobyhf vagb n znwbe oybbq irffry. But even rereading this with memory of how the trick is worked there is tension as clues are missed and the pieces fall into place for the next death.

"Teach the young woman not to be so mercenary," retorted Wimsey, with the cheerful brutality of the man who has never in his life been short of money.

Although I've enjoyed the first two books, this feels like a significant step up in quality. It's hard for me to identify just what specific elements work better, but suddenly everything seems more real. There are side stories that bear on the main case, but which also add personality to everyone involved. It may help that this is the first appearance of Miss Climpson, one of the millions of "surplus women" in the shadow of the War, who provides a secondary investigative viewpoint and hears things that nobody would say to Lord Peter. She's also an example of the fluffy and fussy alternative to being "mannish", if a woman didn't want to or couldn't marry, and helps make the "mannish" woman more sympathetic in spite of her flaws.

Probably the weakest spot is the treatment of a minor character who happens to be black; some readers find horrible racism here, though I tend to regard it mostly as Sayers pointing out just how easy people found it to believe something evil about the Other. (Thank goodness that couldn't happen now, eh?)

Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body (short stories) and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

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Previous in series: Clouds of Witness | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: Lord Peter Views the Body

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:36pm on 20 February 2018

    The fact that the villain is supposed to be a lesbian and that Sayers isn't quite up to depict that at all let alone sympathetically is brought forward as a criticism but I don't think that it brings down the quality of the writing at all.

    She also admitted later that probably the murder method wouldn't have worked quite that reliably. Still a good book though.

    Dammit, I have forgotten all about the minor character who happens to be black and I can't afford the time to go and re-read it just now!

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:39pm on 20 February 2018

    Well, her lesbian-ness doesn't matter for the plot anything like as much as her extremely dominant personality.

    Yes, while that type of death is certainly possible, as described it would have been very obvious.

    I was thinking of the Reverend. You may not necessarily regard him as a minor character…

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