Continuing with my analysis of the best-remembered novels of 1923, we get to Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. NB that this review includes MASSIVE SPOILERS for a detective novel published a hundred years ago.
Whose Body? was Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, and therefore also the first of the eleven Lord Peter Wimsey novels published in her lifetime. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
“That’s a wonderful instrument,” said Parker.
Whose Body? is a better book than The Murder on the Links. Christie’s Poirot (and the other French characters) are already slipping into caricature; Sayers is engaging in wicked social observation of her own people. The characters are more memorable; I was smiling in recognition of particular lines that I first read thirty-five years ago. It established Wimsey as a realistic, complicated man, who likes to pretend that he is much stupider than he really is.
A naked body is discovered in the bath of a respectable London architect; meanwhile a well-known Jewish financier has gone missing. (A deleted line would have made it clear that the body int he bath is not Jewish.) The central mystery is very complicated, but not quite as unbelievably so as in Agatha Christie, and the clues are scattered through the text to the point that the careful reader will have an inkling of the answer at the same time as Wimsey works it all out. The common thread turns out to be…
…a distinguished surgeon who killed the financier after decades of resentment about his marriage, and swapped his body for one from the teaching hospital which he runs. He explains himself in a detailed written confession at the end.
Again, the recent war looms behind everything. Wimsey has an awful attack of shell shock just as he works out the answer to the mystery:
Mr. Bunter, sleeping the sleep of the true and faithful servant, was aroused in the small hours by a hoarse whisper, “Bunter!”
“Yes, my lord,” said Bunter, sitting up and switching on the light.
“Put that light out, damn you!” said the voice. “Listen—over there—listen—can’t you hear it?”
“It’s nothing, my lord,” said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; “it’s all right, you get to bed quick and I’ll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you’re all shivering—you’ve been sitting up too late.”
“Hush! no, no—it’s the water,” said Lord Peter with chattering teeth; “it’s up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can’t you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they’re mining us—but I don’t know where—I can’t hear—I can’t. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it…. Listen! Oh, my God! I can’t hear—I can’t hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can’t they stop the guns?”
“Oh, dear!” said Mr. Bunter to himself. “No, no—it’s all right, Major—don’t you worry.”
Sayers’ England is still picking itself up after catastrophe, more tangibly so than Christie’s France. Notable that The Murder on the Links and Whose Body? share a particular plot twist: in both stories, there is an unsuccessful attempt to substitute the body of a vagrant for the actual murder victim. It suggests rather grimly that in 1923, there was no shortage of anonymous vagrants dying in England and northern France who could be called in post-mortem to support the nefarious plans of aspiring criminals.
Sayer also surprised me by introducing a theological discussion between Wimsey and his police detective friend Parker.
Lord Peter spent the afternoon in a vain hunt for Mr. Parker. He ran him down eventually after dinner in Great Ormond Street.
Parker was sitting in an elderly but affectionate armchair, with his feet on the mantelpiece, relaxing his mind with a modern commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. He received Lord Peter with quiet pleasure, though without rapturous enthusiasm, and mixed him a whisky-and-soda. Peter took up the book his friend had laid down and glanced over the pages.
“All these men work with a bias in their minds, one way or other,” he said; “they find what they are looking for.”
“Oh, they do,” agreed the detective; “but one learns to discount that almost automatically, you know. When I was at college, I was all on the other side—Conybeare and Robertson and Drews and those people, you know, till I found they were all so busy looking for a burglar whom nobody had ever seen, that they couldn’t recognise the footprints of the household, so to speak. Then I spent two years learning to be cautious.”
“Hum,” said Lord Peter, “theology must be good exercise for the brain then, for you’re easily the most cautious devil I know. But I say, do go on reading—it’s a shame for me to come and root you up in your off-time like this.”
I have attempted in vain to locate a credible British commentary on Galatians published in the early 1920s, though there are a couple of American candidates. Sayers of course was well known for her theological writing, but it’s startling to see that in the hands of a policeman character. It is a good set-up for the exposure of the amoral character of the villain.
Anyway, it’s a great start to a good run of Wimsey stories. You can get it here.