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.)
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 ™!)
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH