Body Moving : Dorothy L. Sayers – “Whose Body?”

ABOVE: The Invisible Man would have been an above-average detective.

Dorothy L. Sayers had literary and philosophical aspirations that Agatha Christie never had, but judging by her place in my highly objective personal pantheon, she’s several niches below the Grand Dame. Partly it’s BECAUSE of those aspirations: Sayers tried to clutter her cases with attempts at literature that didn’t necessarily add to the mystery at hand.

I have not read enough from her before now, (the complete short stories and two latter LPW cases), but I don’t feel she comes close to the intricate brilliance of the Grand Dame. Sure, Sayers tries intricacy in Lord Peter Wimsey’s debut mystery, “Whose Body?” – but in all the wrong ways. It’s the intricacy of the person who, when asked directions to the pub down the block, insists on minutely describing the street layout of the entire village.

Still, I’m no Edmund Wilson, (who infamously savaged a later Sayers novel, and indeed the entire mystery genre, in one of the most tone-deaf reactionary essays traceable to a major intellectual figure.) There’s a lot I like about “Whose Body?” The set-up is intriguing. There’s a man in a bath-tub, and he’s wearing only a pince-nez. The man is dead, the bath tub isn’t his, neither is the pince-nez, and no one has no idea whose body it is. Enter foppish-yet-brilliant Lord Peter Wimsey to pull the plug on the mystery (or something.)

ABOVE: “Nope. I can’t see it at all! Not even with the magnifying glass! You were right, Gladys. Textbook example of a micro-phallus!”

Albert Campion, Margery Allingham’s detective, was originally intended as a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey – but what’s to parody? Wimsey already comes into the world as a Bertie Wooster impersonator, shadowed by an efficient Jeeves of his own called Bunter, and even an Aunt-Dahlia-type, (Peter’s mother, the Duchess Dowager.) They all expertly replicate P. G. Wodehouse’s brand of humor – to excess, really: characters talk, jaw, jabber, banter, ramble and monologue theatrically, with a few scarce stage directions diverting the stream of words. Sayers wasn’t sure if she wanted palaver or cadavers at this point in her career.

The jokey stuff is good, particularly a scene that pokes fun at the way witnesses in crime novels vividly recall events from weeks before. There’s a meta sense of humor here – look at the abrupt end of a killer’s written confession:

“No trace would have been left in your body of the injection, which consisted of a harmless preparation of strychnine, mixed with an almost unknown poison, for which there is at present no recognized test, a concentrated solution of sn——” 

At this point the manuscript broke off.

“Well, that’s all clear enough!”

That’s funny, parodic stuff. But then what’s one to make of the very serious suggestion that Peter is suffering from PTSD after his service in WWI? Clearly, Sayers was still guessing at her character, seeing beyond the Bertie Wooster to the more distinctive sleuth of later novels. The Lord Peter Wimsey of “Whose Body?” is not complex enough yet, but the procedural aspects of the detection sure are. The novel is bogged down by detailed, soporific talk about fingerprints that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have known to excise; excruciating second-by-second accounts of everyone’s unimportant movements; and an absurdly detailed confession that is also unnecessary because this is one of the most transparent of the classic whodunits. The killer becomes obvious from the moment he-or-she is awkwardly jammed into the scheme of things.


(SPOILER HINT 1: Sayers was very much of the school of Catholic/ Anglicans that also gave us C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The killer… not so Catholic.)


(SPOILER HINT 2: Is there a character who has absolutely no reason for being in the novel? Does this character seem like a straw-man? Does the character hold opinions Sayers would have found distasteful? )

(SPOILER HINT 3: You got it! The killer is the Smug, Science-Loving Atheist ™!)


Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings : William Shakespeare – “Richard II”

Second in the monarchic Histories, (after “King John” ), William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” chronicles the forced 1399 abdication of that mediocre-yet-poetic titular king before Henry Bolingbroke, (soon to be Henry IV.)

ABOVE: “I can’t remember… did I turn the oven off before I left the palace??”

“Richard II” aims at pure poetry: about a third of it relies in couplets. The rest slides into blank verse, not always in a smooth or logical transition. Bardolaters might believe Shakespeare’s inspiration inexhaustible, but you can certainly spot the moments where Will throws up the quill: “Can’t think of a rhyme/So it’s blank verse time!” It’s not the only schism in evidence: the play is also half dutiful textbook account, half lyrical attempt at metaphysical poetry.

A third schism runs through the play: We’re supposed to accept that Richard, (whom the plot requires to be a rash, unthinking fool) is also somehow one of the greatest philosophers to ever wear a crown. Shakespeare never manages to reconcile the external, historical, blundering Richard with the internal, invented, meditative poet who could give John Donne a metaphorical fit of envy.

Richard is not very heroic: his plight (losing the throne after he’s created enemies left and right, and then developing a fallen-Messiah complex) hardly gets our sympathy; and yet he  is the only character whose emotional life we can access here. “Richard II” has no Faulconbridges to amuse us, no worthwhile female roles to break through the martial ranks. The closest thing to a secondary character of worth is Old John Gaunt, who at least has enough personality to pun on his own name.  I find this dearth of character atypical for Shakespeare, who can usually conjure unforgettable people out of two-line cameos.

For me, there are three truly memorable moments in “Richard II”:

-the highly dramatic bit in which the deposed Richard II asks (Lear-like) for a mirror that will show him what his own face looks like, once drained of its Kingliness

ABOVE : “Mirror, mirror in my hand/ who’s the worst king in the land?”

- the “sceptred isle” speech, a jingoistic anthem of England uber alles that would make any slightly susceptible audience break into salvoes of “God Save the Queen”

- and the stand-out speech, a high epic poem that doubles as a manifesto for the Shakespearean Histories, since it purposes to

“…tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

Couer your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemne Reuerence: throw away Respect,

Tradition, Forme, and Ceremonious dutie,

For you haue but mistooke me all this while:

I liue with Bread like you, feele Want,

Taste Griefe, need Friends: subiected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a King?”

That’s absolutely beautiful stuff!!! ( Being Shakespeare, there’s a couple of other great turns of phrase here, my favorite being “the purple testament of bleeding war.”) Still, “Richard II” is more prologue than it is play. Many things are set-up here for the future: the rest of the “Henriad,” the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian segment of the Hundred Year’s War. But few things actually HAPPEN, and when they do, it’s off-stage.

ABOVE: It is good to be king.

The conclusion to Act V is particularly frustrating, with Henry IV passively listening to the rapid report of all sorts of decisive off-stage events. Towns consumed in fire! Dozens of important parsonages are mutilated and be-headed! Except  we were barely introduced to any of them and so do we do not care about them. They’ve taken the heads of

Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent/

The manner of their taking may appear/

At large discussed in this paper here.”

That’s four guys whose deaths were apparently very dramatic- but Shakespeare withholds the drama with that line. The Bard might as well have walked in from the wings: “Folks, you missed out on a lot of super-cool action scenes I couldn’t really work into the plot. Real HEART-POUNDING, EDGE-OF-YOUR-GLOBE-SEAT stuff! Trust me, you wish you had been watching THAT play instead!”

To add some sort of visual interest to this scene, a coffin gets dragged on stage. WHO’S IN IT, you wonder in suspense?

“Great King, herein all breathless lies

The mightiest of thy greatest enemies:

Richard Bordeaux.”

(WHO? We have no clue, because this great nemesis WAS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED BEFORE.)

“Richard II” can accurately be described as: “King realizes he’s just a human being; gets bummed about it.” I do not, if you noticed, rate “Richard II” high on the Shakespearian scale.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH (on the Shakespearian scale)

Still in the Nile : Emilio Salgari – “The Daughters of the Pharaohs”

Still in the Nile, but this time with a two volume cycle from Emilio Salgari, comprising “”The Daughters of the Pharaohs” and “The Priest of Ptah” (1906). “The Daughters of the Pharaohs” follows the very familiar Salgarian outline of a wronged prince recapturing his rightful throne, and one imagines Verdi’s “Aida” played on the gramophone throughout the novel’s composition, but it is distinguished by a remarkable amount of research (for its author.) Basic knowledge of Egyptology proves most of that “research” wrong, a mad anachronistic jumble of dynasties, but the man must have at least cracked open a book or two on the subject of Ancient Egypt.

ABOVE: “By Osiris, somehow I’ve wound up at the New York Public Library!”

EXOTIC SETTING: Ancient Egypt, Memphis, “3000 years ago.”

HEROES: Mirinri, an aspiring young Pharaoh; TWO sexy princesses fighting over him, (which is why some editions give the title of the book as “The Daughters of the Pharaohs.”)

VILLAINS: Pepi I, the evil Emperor whom you can never take seriously because he’s called Pepi. GIGGLEZ! PEPI!

TOPICS OF INTEREST: Frequent factoids about the cultural and religious life of Ancient Egypt. Many of those factoids are not even made up.

MEAN ANIMALS: We are told that out hero rescues the princess from the jaws of an alligator; it happens “off-screen,” before the novel starts, because even Salgari couldn’t think of a way for a princess to actually be caught in the jaws of an alligator and somehow survive with her prettiness un-mangled. A lion is stabbed to death in the sands. Entire flocks of birds have their tail feathers set on fire as a form of aerial warfare.

BIZARRE MOMENT: Our hero, in a fit of fury, drags a mummy out of a sarcophagus and kicks it into dust. The mummy did nothing to provoke him!

DIALOGUE GEM: “Mirinri, I am your father… your father’s good friend, I mean. I am NOT your father, is what I am trying to say. I love you, my son. I mean, my SUN that rises over Egypt. You know, not like SON son, but SUN, the God in the sky. Ra!”

ACTION SCENE: An epic attack on Memphis is worth wandering through the literary desert that is Salgari’s “style.”

“TWIST”: The dude who kept on saying he wasn’t Mirinri’s father totally turned out to be Mirinri’s father. Very “Star Wars.” A second “twist” was actually surprising to me as a young reader – too young to notice it was spoiled in the TITLE. That  second twist is also very “Star Wars.”

CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “The manly, intelligent, advanced Egyptian specimen of the time can hardly be compared to today’s degraded, superstitious cabal of dusky war-seekers.”

RATING: COOL! Above average Salgari

Below, enjoy an evocative gallery of classic covers:











SF Grue? Not true! : Richard Davis, ed. – “The Year’s Best Horror Stories 1″

ABOVE: That little mouse looks happy!

The first of DAW’s long-running “The Year’s Best Horror Stories,” from 1971, has a little cover line that advertises “a witch’s brew of sf grue”. That says a lot about the uneasy status the horror genre had in 1971, before the arrival of Stephen King on the scene. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s had just turned science fiction as mainstream as it could get with “2001,” so it made some marketing sense for the nascent horror scene to claim itself as a form of science fiction that stressed emotional effects over intellectual processes. The unnecessary shout out to the “sf” scene (or “S-F” scene, no one could ever quite decide) even shows up in later, alternate covers:

ABOVE: Alternate, “Dali-Lizard” cover.

There’s no “sf” in the collection, but there’s some great classic horror by the likes of Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. There’s two obvious trends to 1971 horror: Epistolary Lovecraftian homages, and tales of horror disrupting the lives of repressed suburbanites. Partly belonging to that second group is Richard Matheson’s “Prey,” the story that should have put the words “Zuni Fetish Doll” in the “Cabin on the Woods” whiteboard. (“Dolls” is there, of course.)

ABOVE: “Hi? Mattel? I’m calling about your new culturally-diverse line of Barbie dolls. Er, this one isn’t what I had in mind. Can I get a refund?”

RATING : MIXED, like the majority of anthologies; COOL! overall.

Pyramid Scheme : Agatha Christie – “Death on the Nile”

“La vie est vaine.
Un peu d’amour,
Un peu de haine,
Et puis bonjour.
La vie est brève.
Un peu d’espoir,
Un peu de rêve,
Et puis bonsoir.”

-Leon de Montenaeken, as sung by the great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot

ABOVE: Really, if your eyesight is THAT deficient, you shouldn’t be using a gun at all!

4,000 years after the events in “Death Comes as the End,” and Egypt is still a dangerous place to visit with Agatha Christie. “Death on the Nile” is one of Christie’s best loved “vacation” novels: passion and murder intersect during a cruise down the great river.

Glitzy socialite Lynnet Doyle seems to have it all, including a handsome new husband with whom she’s honeymooning on a luxurious Egyptian cruise ship. Unfortunately for Lynnet, she stole the hubby from a former best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. Poor Jacqueline bitterly stalks the new couple as they spend their honeymoon in a luxurious Egyptian cruise ship; she threatens them; she waves around a little gun … is she going to be the killer?

Not so fast! The ship is  also carrying a wide variety of tourists, many of them worthy of our suspicions. When the death announced in the title does happen,  a certain little mustachioed foreigner must intervene. (No, it’s not Mario.)

ABOVE: I could see it, though! Mario in “Murder with Mushrooms.”

Christie’s novels don’t usually need re-reading, (aside from “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” )  but they reward it, or at least don’t punish it. If you read enough Christie, eventually you will come back to an old one, if only because they’re forgettable in the BEST of possible ways. (I can’t tell you which one is “The Mystery of Seven Dials” and which one is “The Secret of Chimneys,” but if I accidentally happen to re-read them, as has happened, I CAN tell you that I WILL enjoy them again.)  “Death on the Nile” was a voluntary re-read, and I also vividly recall most of the above-average movie adaptation with Peter Ustinov:

ABOVE: “Who’s got a bigger head, me or the Sphinx? You can tell me, I won’t get offended.”

Knowing the solution actually freed me to notice the clever manipulations (“he seemed startled” is not the same as “he was startled”); the gentle placement of red herrings (so that they have rewards and aren’t just there to frustrate you); and how FAIR she is in her games. If you know what’s coming in advance, you’ll notice her killers are always like: “LOOK AT MEEE, IT WAS MEEEEEEEEEE, I DID IT!!!” The answer is as plain as the nose on the Sphinx’s face…

Or maybe not…