Sayers, Dorothy L. Unnatural Death.

NY: Harper, 1927.

Whatever his undoubted talents as a detective, let’s face it — Lord Peter Wimsey is a busybody. He and his buddy, DI Charles Parker of Scotland Yard, are having tea in a café and idly discussing methods of murder in the medical profession when a stranger at the next table butts in to tell them of his own recent experience with a late patient whom he suspected of being the victim of foul play by a great-niece who was also the old lady’s nurse.

One thing quickly leads to another and Wimsey is caught up in investigating the possibilities: Was there a crime or wasn’t there? He sees the puzzle as an experiment in “pure crime” — the murders that not only are never solved but which people don’t even realize have occurred. (It’s an interesting point; what proportion of murderers are ever caught, when we can’t even be sure when a successful one has been committed?) Wimsey sends off a spinster whom he has engaged as an undercover agent to poke about in the affairs of the small town where the death occurred (Miss Climpson is rather a hoot) — and then the body is discovered of a girl who had been a maid in the household, and who might unknowingly have acquired evidence about the possible murder. A banknote connects this new body (though, frankly, I can’t imagine how they traced it) with a mysterious woman living in a flat in London, and the complications and convolutions continue to pile up. One murder inevitably leads to another in order to cover up the first one, which rather justifies Wimsey’s philosophical point. The solution to the method of murder, when it comes, may seem obvious to us (it’s been used in countless movies and television dramas), but it probably wasn’t so obvious to Sayers’s first readers. In terms of plot development, however, Sayers comes close on several occasions to losing control of her narrative. I had to stop and go back over the action to keep track of things, which is unusual with a Sayers novel. It’s interesting, though, how the author delicately provides hints about several probable Lesbian relationships among various characters, explicit or otherwise — without, of course, ever being open about it. Her more sophisticated readers undoubtedly smiled at what they knew was going on, though. All in all, while it’s far from her best work, it’s not a bad book.

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Published in: on 13 February 2011 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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