Sayers, Dorothy L. Whose Body?

NY: Harper & Row, 1923.

This is the first-written of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective yarns, and yet it reads as if Sayers had been at her craft for years. Wimsey, of course, is the younger brother of the Duke of Denver — for which he is thankful as he would have positively hated having to bear the title himself — and, being a gentleman, and well educated, and wealthy, he can hardly go off to work every morning. But, except for collecting books, he does get bored. If he hadn’t been a member of the aristocracy, he likely would have become a copper, so he makes do as an amateur detective.

This book isn’t the beginning of his career in that regard, either. He’s already made friends at Scotland Yard (notably Inspector Charles Parker, who is destined to become Lord Peter’s brother-in-law) as well as enemies; the latter don’t like him “interfering,” not to mention showing them up. The specific facts of the case in this first outing involve two crimes — a naked body (except for gold pince-nez) found in the bathtub of an upstairs flat, the identity of which is a mystery, and the disappearance of Sir Reuben Levy, a noted Jewish financier and self-made man. It appears, as Sir Peter notes, that one case is of a man with no past and the other is of a man with (he fears) no future. Wimsey and Parker compare notes and agree to work on both cases together, since they seem to have certain odd circumstances in common. The plot itself is well worked out and the author plays fair with the reader, distributing clues and red herrings as one would expect. The reader probably will guess whodunit (which I won’t give away, on the assumption that you may not have read the book if you’re reading this review), but we’ve had a lot more experience with this sort of thing than middle-class readers of eighty-odd years ago. (Hard to believe 1923 was that long ago, too — which probably says something about me.) Sayers is very adroit in her narrative style, bringing in various tactics (third-person dialogue summaries, complete with Cockney-isms, for instance) and letting the principal characters define themselves for the reader rather than doing it for them. Lord Peter presents himself as an amiable ass, but that’s just his cover; he’s actually a good deal deeper than that, as his widowed mother (a delightful character) and Bunter, his unflappable valet/butler/investigative assistant, would attest. She also doesn’t go overboard in describing the scene, so a younger reader (who may not know what an “opera hat” is) will still find plenty here to enjoy. An excellent beginning to a truly classic series.

Published in: on 6 February 2011 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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