Friday, December 25, 2015
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
Introducing Lord Peter Wimsey
Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1923 mystery novel Whose Body? is the debut adventure of Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the great gentleman sleuths of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Lord Peter is the second son of the Duke of Denver (England, not Colorado). As an unemployed member of the idle rich, he chooses to spend his free time solving mysteries. He is encouraged in this hobby by his friend Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective who consults him on tricky cases. Whose Body? finds Lord Peter with not one but two baffling puzzles on his hands. His mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, comes to him on behalf of a Mr. Thipps, who has inexplicably discovered the dead body of an unknown man in his bathtub. As if to add insult to injury, the corpse is completely naked except for a pair of pince-nez spectacles. Meanwhile, Parker is also working on a case that demands Lord Peter’s attention. Sir Reuben Levy, a prominent financier, has disappeared. Could the stiff in Thipps’s tub be Parker’s missing man?
Comparisons between Wimsey and Sherlock Holmes are inevitable; so inevitable, in fact, that Lord Peter himself makes them. He is an enthusiast of detective fiction, yet a critic of it as well, often pointing out how the killers in mystery novels don’t behave the way real-life murderers would. Though such meta-commentary pokes fun at the classic detective, it’s clear that Lord Peter admires Holmes and likes to consider himself very much in the same league with the fictional detective. As a literary character, however, he doesn’t quite measure up, yet Lord Peter is likely one of the best post-Holmes British investigators, ranking up there with Agatha Christie’s recurring sleuths.
Even less so than Holmes, Lord Peter is not the sort of man I would take a liking to in real life. He has a rather frivolous attitude toward just about everything, including his cases. Often the main concern on his mind is the wearing of proper trousers. He readily admits that his interest in solving mysteries is driven by intellectual exercise; he has little moral interest in punishing wrong-doers. When it comes to crime, he displays a computer-like intelligence, but in all other matters he seems rather air-headed and flighty. If anything the reader identifies with Parker, who fights crime for a living and takes his role as a lawman seriously. One gets the impression that putting up with Lord Peter’s shallow flippancy is a necessity he willing endures in order to get his man and set things right. On the other hand, two qualities I do enjoy about Lord Peter are his interest in collecting rare books and the fact that he enlists the help of his mother—by all measures a charming character—in solving his cases.
As for the mystery itself: “Very pretty,” as Parker remarks, “a bit intricate, though.” For the most part, Sayers’ writing is quite smart and engaging. The solution to the mystery is revealed a little too early, however, and is not surprising enough. Towards the end of the book, a couple passages written in the second person seem like ostentatious stylistic diversions that distract from the story rather than help it. Overall, however, Sayers tells her story very well. Her prose recalls the solid, traditional storytelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Maurice Leblanc sprinkled with risqué suggestions of sex and violence more suited to the modern reader. Though published over 90 years ago, today’s audience will still find Whose Body? fresh and exciting. Despite my few misgivings mentioned above, I enjoyed this book very much and will certainly seek out the further escapades of Lord Peter.
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