Friday, March 29, 2013

Evolution of the Mystery Genre

Whose Body?                                                        
Dorothy L. Sayers

This was Sayer’s first Sir Peter Wimsey novel, published in 1923. It begins with a call from Wimsey's mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. She telephones to say that Thipps, an architect hired to do some work on her local church, has just found a dead body wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez in the bath in his flat. The official investigator, Inspector Sugg, suspects Thipps and his servant; Wimsey starts his own enquiry. Sir Reuben Levy, a famous financier, has disappeared from his own bedroom, and there has been a flurry of trading in some Peruvian oil shares. Inspector Parker, Wimsey's friend, is investigating this.

The corpse in the bath is not Levy, but Wimsey becomes convinced that the two are linked. The trail leads to the teaching hospital near the architect's flat, and to surgeon and neurologist Sir Julian Freke, who is based there. Wimsey discovers that Freke murdered Sir Reuben and staged his 'disappearance' from home, having borne a grudge for years over Lady Levy, who chose to marry Sir Reuben rather than him. He also engineered the trading in oil shares, to lure Sir Reuben to his death. He dismembered Sir Reuben and gave him to his students to dissect, substituting his body for that of a pauper donated to the hospital for that purpose, who bore a superficial resemblance to Sir Reuben. The pauper's body, washed, shaved and manicured, was then carried over the roofs and dumped in Thipps' bath as a joke. Freke's belief that conscience and guilt are inconvenient physiological aberrations, which may be cut out and discarded, is an explanation for his conduct. He attempts to murder both Parker and Wimsey, and finally tries suicide when his actions are discovered, but is arrested in time.

The book establishes many of Wimsey's character traits - for example, his interest in rare books, the nervous problems associated with his wartime shell-shock, and his ambiguous feelings about catching criminals for a hobby - and also introduces many characters who recur in later novels, such as Parker, Bunter, Sugg, and the Dowager Duchess. There is a passing reference in the book to Freddy Arbuthnot, Wimsey's friend and contact for the stock market, being in love with Sir Reuben Levy's daughter Rachel and wanting to marry her. This theme is picked up in Strong Poison, taking place seven years later, when Freddy at last manages to convince Rachel's family to consent to the match despite his being a gentile - after Freddy compared his long wait with that of the Biblical Jacob for his Rachel.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers

(June 13, 1983 – December 17, 1957)

Dorothy L. Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between the First and Second World Wars that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Her novel, Guady Night was ranked #18 on The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time by the Mystery Writers of America.

Lord Peter Wimsey burst upon the world of detective fiction with an explosive "Oh, damn!" and continued to engage readers in eleven novels and two sets of short stories; the final novel ended with a very different "Oh, damn!". Sayers once commented that Lord Peter was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, which is most evident in the first five novels. However, it is evident through Lord Peter's development as a rounded character that he existed in Sayers's mind as a living, breathing, fully human being. Sayers introduced detective novelist Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. Sayers remarked more than once that she had developed the "husky voiced, dark-eyed" Harriet to put an end to Lord Peter via matrimony. But in the course of writing Gaudy Night, Sayers imbued Lord Peter and Harriet with so much life that she was never able, as she put it, to "see Lord Peter exit the stage".

Lord Peter Wimsey novels:
• Whose Body? (1923)
• Clouds of Witness (1926)
• Unnatural Death (1927). The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
• Lord Peter Views the Body (1928; 12 short stories)
• Strong Poison (1930)
• Five Red Herrings (1931)
• Have His Carcase (1932)
• Hangman's Holiday (1933; 12 short stories, 4 including Lord Peter)
• Murder Must Advertise (1933)
• The Nine Tailors (1934)
• Gaudy Night (1935)


  1. Ahhh, I love Lord Peter and Harriet, even if she does lead him a merry chase before finally accepting his proposal. They were a big influence on my own series. Thank you, DLS, for your wonderful stories!

    Julianna Deering (DeAnna Dodson)

  2. I definitely intend to read her other books. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Gaudy Night is my favorite Dorothy Sayers book. I bought all the BBC shows of Peter Wimsey :) Have you read Margery Allingham?

    1. No, but she's on my long, long list of authors to check out. 8D Where did you buy the BBC Peter Wimsey DVD's?

    2. One set was a gift, the other I ordered off either the BBC or Amazon...

  4. Sayers' works, both fiction and nonfiction, are some of my all-time favorites.

    NF must-reads: Creed or Chaos?, her "Papers on Dante," Are Women Human?, The Whimsical Christian, Sayers on Holmes.

    1. Sounds like something else I need to add to my ever-growing To Be Read list. Thanks for the suggestions.