February 26, 2009

Whose Body? ***

*** Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers, 1995

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

When it comes right down to it, the British murder mystery is the staple for a good whodunit read. And of course everyone points to Agatha Christi as the grand dame of the genre. Outside of the realm of mystery fans, few people have heard of Dorothy Sayers. Which is too bad, because she rocks.

Dorothy Sayers was a contemporary of Christi, although less prolific, producing 17 books of detection as opposed to Christi’s 80. The limited catalog only makes the individual books that much more precious due to their scarcity.

The chronicle of Lord Peter Wimsey, the urbane dilettante in detection, begins with Whose Body? and continues through a dozen novels and three short-story collections. Wimsey is an interesting detective, a second son of British royalty with plenty of money, time, manners, insouciance and connections. And he has one last item lacking in many of his peers, brains. Sayers takes this good beginning and mixes it with a nice little puzzle.

Lord Peter is interrupted on his way to an ancient manuscript auction by a call from his mother, asking him to assist an acquaintance with an embarrassing problem: a corpse in the bathtub -- a well-manicured stranger utterly naked with the exception of a pair of gold pince-nez on his nose.

Wimsey dives into this welcome enigma and works his way through a cast of interesting characters on his way to the solution, including Suggs, the predictable bumbling policeman and Parker, a highly competent Scotland Yard detective, a close friend of Wimsey’s who studies theology in his spare time. Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, a kindly woman with a stream-of-consciousness style of conversation, is also a regular in the Wimsey stories.

Like Christi’s Poirot and Marple, one of the primary attractions of Sayers’ stories is the development of the characters, particularly Wimsey. In each successive story, Wimsey grows from an interesting gentleman detective with expensive hobbies into a much more complex character. Even in this first novel, we get a glimpse of Wimsey’s frailties, as he succumbs to a relapse of WW I shell-shock.

Sayers achieves the delicate blend of manners and murder that characterizes the British murder mystery. It was a time when the quality of a whodunit was measured by the puzzle and the characters, not the degree of perversity and shock-value that seems to form the bulk of more modern mysteries. For those who prefer the PG-rated variety of murder (no sex, no profanity, no graphic violence or gore), the works of this era are perfect and Sayers' are among the best.

Whose Body? is a perfect example of the genre.

While the first Lord Peter mystery is not Sayers at her best, it is still a good read, and the proper starting point for those who like to begin at the beginning. At under 200 pages, it is a quick and entertaining read.

The entire Sayers catalog is required reading for all lovers of good whodunits.

Other works by Dorothy Sayers:

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