Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

What do you do when you find a naked dead body in your bath – well, naked apart from a pair of gold pince-nez… You call Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur detective and professional bon vivant. As he looks into the bizarre case, his friend is investigating the disappearance of Reuben Levy, a financier, who vanished from his rooms in the middle of the night – leaving all of his clothes behind. Is there a connection between the cases? And why on earth would someone go to all this bother?

New Author August continues… and yes, Dorothy L Sayers is a new author to me. Yes, before this month, I hadn’t read any of this author who is often mentioned in the same breath as Dame Agatha herself. So, what exactly have I been missing?

I picked this one for two reasons – I found it in a  charity shop and it’s the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. On finishing it, I was a bit bemused. The Wimsey novels are often trumpeted as being classics of the genre – there are five entries (out of eleven) in the MWA top 100 mystery novels – but notably not this one. The reason that I looked is that I found this rather unsatisfying.

There is a lot to like here. A character like Wimsey, in the hands of a lesser writer, could be intensely irritating, but Sayers does a great job of making him sympathetic and entertaining. Some of the supporting characters at times seem a little two-dimensional, such as Inspector Sugg at the start of the novel, but they do expand out as the book progresses. One particular example is Wimsey himself as the reason for his devil-may-care attitude is revealed, giving him a surprising depth.

So far, so good. So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s the plot. It’s complete nonsense. It contains possibly the least surprising murderer ever – although I’m not convinced that it’s even been written as a whodunnit –but the behaviour of the murderer is bizarre in the extreme. Wimsey speculates a number of times that a master criminal is behind everything, and it is rather disappointing that no-one in the cast comments that the scheme is in fact nonsense. There’s a hint of a good idea behind things as to why the killer does what they do, but the impracticalities would have dissuaded anyone but the nuttiest of nutcases. And the explanation of the pince-nez is weak in the extreme – you expect the odd bits to have clever reasons, but it’s not the case here.

So, a series with potential that I’ll return to, but I was surprisingly disappointed with this book. Am I alone here, or is this a weak start to a strong series?

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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14 Responses to Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

  1. Patrick says:

    Yes it is, but to be honest, Sayers’ killers tend to be very obvious. I was only fooled twice: in the brilliant GAUDY NIGHT and the far-from-brilliant CLOUDS OF WITNESS, which had a very disappointing solution. Another disappointing one was HAVE HIS CARCASE and of course UNNATURAL DEATH.The series is a generally good one, but it reaches its apex with THE NINE TAILORS and GAUDY NIGHT (the latter of which is built up for several books as Lord Peter meets his love interest, who plays a major role in the novel, far more so than Lord Peter).

    And this is why mentioning Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh in the same breath as Christie is a *bad* thing. Each had her own unique style, but in their “average” novels, none of them are as clever as Christie. If you pick up one of their books expecting Agatha Christie under a different name, you’ll be sorely disappointed, especially by Allingham and Marsh, who were rather weak or at least uneven plotters.

  2. lesblatt says:

    I have to agree – “Whose Body” is not a very impressive book. I’m with Patrick, particularly as far as “The Nine Tailors” is concerned, which I think is a remarkably well-written and plotted book.

  3. Donna says:

    Whose Body? is not the best in the series. I think The Nine Tailors is the best (I’ve read them all), but I was much taken with the development of the character of Lord Peter over the whole series. Perhaps the most important part of this book is learning about his WWI PTSD which will reappear almost every time he gets close to naming the criminal. And that doesn’t resolve itself until the very last book.

  4. Curt Evans says:

    Like John Rhode (John Street), who helped Sayers “with all the hard bits” in Have His Carcase, Sayers was more interested in the how? than the who? question. This is okay by me as long as the how? is interesting. I enjoy Have His Carcase, it has one of the most complex in mystery fiction, I think (arguably too clever for the murderer to have come up with, but than I don’t demand absolute realism from Golden Age plots).

    I’d be interested in your analysis of the plot of Whose Body?, perhaps you could post with spoiler warnings?

    • Ok, SPOILERS – but I will still be a bit vague as I know people still tend to read past such warnings.

      The notion of substituting one body for another, where to get such a body and how to hide the original body is very clever. If you spot how to do it, it heavily signposts the killer, although Sayers hardly hides it here.

      The nonsense is a) the part about dumping it in the bath involving lugging a corpse over a rooftop rather than chucking it in the river b) using traceable pince-nez to confuse the issue and c) having to dump the extra body when surely fudging some paperwork would have been much easier way of getting round the problem of the extra body. It did bug me the number of times that Wimsey mentions that the killer must be a genius when he clearly isn’t.

      I’m certainly coming back to Sayers in the future, but hopefully will hit one of the good ones next.

  5. lesblatt says:

    I can’t resist one other comment: the body was found wearing a pear of pince-nez. I suppose it IS possible that could have been Ellery Queen? It might explain why Queen was less mannered in his later books… ;-)

    • Ah, but was Ellery Jewish Les..? Circumcision was meant to be part of the plot in Sayers’ original draft. I rather like UNNATURAL DEATH but don’t care for the awesomely padded and enormous snobbery of GAUDY NIGHT. I suspect that NINE TAILORS remains the most distinctive, and while I would agree that as whodunits the books rarely excel, they are usually clever and her prose is exceptionally good – it has even earned praise from the likes of Stephen King. The 1980s TV adaptation starring Edward Petherbridge as Wimsey and Harriet Walter as Vane, Sayers’ idealised version of herself (a much more romantic portrait than Ariadne Oliver) is, to my mind, exceptionally good incidentally. I am less keen on the earlier adaptation starring Ian Carmichael …

  6. Skywatcher says:

    She is a good writer, although she lacks the plotting skills of someone like Christie or Carr. I very much like MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, although it’s not really a puzzle plot. She was always less interested in whodunnit than in how the murder was carried out, and some of the novels were deliberately written to make the murder obvious early on. Actually, the short stories (and especially the Montague Egg short stories) have much stronger puzzle plots.

  7. Sarah says:

    I’m with Skywatcher. ‘Murder must Advertise’ is my favourite Wimsey book.

  8. I also rate THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB as one of her most enjoyable performances.

  9. Skywatcher says:

    Cavershamragu: I went into the Carmichael telly adaptions with some misgivings, but they won me over. He’s slightly too old for the character as written, but he was a huge fan of the books, and that shows in the care that he took with the role. If you can overlook the physical mismatch, he’s very good. I also think that that Wimsey/Bunter relationship is perfectly caught. Glyn Houston is perfect as Bunter.

  10. Pingback: The Puzzly – The ISOTCMN Book of the Month – August 2012 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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