RogerBW's Blog

Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers 02 February 2018

1923 mystery, first of Sayers' books about Lord Peter Wimsey. A body is found in a bath in Battersea, naked except for a pair of gold pince-nez; and a prominent financier has disappeared from his bed. Unless they're the same man, the cases don't appear to be connected, but Wimsey the amateur sleuth takes an interest in both ends of the affair.

I had read this book before, and remembered the outline of the murder; but I had forgotten how much fun as well as how much seriousness Sayers packs round the skeleton of the investigation. The characterisation of Wimsey here owes a great deal to Wodehouse's silly young men, but the reader is made firmly aware that it's all an act; it becomes clear that he had a bad time in the War and afterwards, and that his hobby of sleuthing is in large part a form of therapy (and brings with it its own mental risks when it collides with reality).

"Yes, yes, I know," said the detective, "but that's because you're thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that's childish. If you've any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That's all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn't any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent—what's that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, 'Well played—hard luck—you shall have your revenge to-morrow!' Well, you can't do it like that. Life's not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can't be a sportsman. You're a responsible person."

Sayers plays scrupulously fair with clues (indeed, the early chapters give all the information that's really needed), and there's a well-signposted moment for the reader to stop and evaluate their own deductions. As a technical mystery, this does everything right, even if it's not as challenging as some; there's a fairly small array of suspects, and as readers we know it has to be someone we've met.

As a story about people, it also does most things right. To a modern reader there are some antisemitic moments, but very much less so than in other popular writing of the 1920s; rather than the usual defamation, the attitude is mostly the idea that Jews are different from "us". Apart from that, there are well-observed characters and good interactions between them; the methods of murder and concealment are consistent with the established villainous character; even the full revelation of the plot is done in a way that is entirely appropriate to the nature of the criminal.

It's a first novel, but I think it's a decent introduction to the series. People who are determined to find and be put off by snobbery can do that here rather than wasting their time with longer, later books.

Bunter: These great men have their own way of doing things.

Cummings: Well, all I can say is, it isn't my way.

(I could believe that, your lordship. Cummings has no signs of greatness about him, and his trousers are not what I would wish to see in a man of his profession.)

Followed by Clouds of Witness.

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