Whose Body? is the first of Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels featuring her justly famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. There’s something which might almost be called a tradition in detective fiction that the first novel featuring the detective is not the place to start reading them, and though it is a good book, Whose Body? is not an exception. The author doesn’t really know his character in the first book, or more properly, characters—half of what makes a detective great are usually his friends and occasionally his enemies. As such things go, Lord Peter does come onto the scene in Whose Body? close to fully formed. Still, I would recommend start with Strong Poison or Cloud of Witness first.
With that out of the way, Whose Body? is a good mystery as well as a good Lord Peter story. It has a great deal of wit in it, both in wry observations as well as some excellent scenes involving Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. The mystery unfolds at a good pace, with new things for the reader to think about coming regularly. There is also the pleasure of reading about Lord Peter’s 1920s luxury. Though set contemporaneously, they are now period fiction, and Dorothy L. Sayers paints the scene vividly enough to work as period fiction for the modern reader. It is certainly a must-read for any Lord Peter fan.
(If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read any further.)
Analysis of the Story
(Note: please take everything that I say following in light of Whose Body? being a good novel. The purpose of this section is to try to learn from a master (Sayers) at work. Anything which sounds like harsh criticism should be taken merely as economy of speech.)
In light of some of Sayers’ later triumphs—such as Have His Carcass and Gaudy night—in Whose Body? she is clearly still finding her way with Lord Peter and detective fiction in general in. It is important to bear in mind the relativity of that statement, because Whose Body? is still superior to most other writers’ polished detectives. But none the less, Whose Body? is more conventional and ultimately a little hesitant.
By more conventional, I mean that it follows the conventions of detective fiction more closely than do the other Lord Peter novels. Though that is a somewhat strange thing to say given that in 1923, detective fiction wasn’t that old. A Study in Scarlet (the first Sherlock Holmes story) was published in 1887, a mere 36 years earlier. Granted, detective fiction exploded after Sherlock Holmes, but the explosion was still in its relatively early days in the 1920s. But none the less there were plenty of conventions at the time, and Sayers did follow them more closely than she would later.
Part of this is also related to the distinction between short story mysteries and mystery novels. I’ve talked about his before, but the short explanation is that short story mysteries are quite commonly brain teasers, while novels are the story of a detective at work. This follows necessarily from the length. In the quintessential mystery short story, the detective comes onto the scene of a crime, takes in the clues, then realizes the solution to the problem and explains it. The shortness of the story allows the reader to take in all of the clues, then pause to consider them before finding out whether he guessed correctly. (This, by the way, is why in television shows the detective suddenly realizing the solution to the problem after somebody says something which stirs his imagination is so common. I.e. why there’s the classic, “wait, say that again. You’ve solved it!” moment. After laying out the clues, they had to give the audience time to think about it, and it can’t be a new clue which solves the case for the detective, so something has to be the trigger for the detective realizing who did it so we can get to the reveal.)
This is structurally impossible in a novel, however. If the reader is given all of the information he needs in order to solve the mystery in the first ten pages of the novel, the rest of the novel becomes pointless and the brilliance of the detective becomes impossible to believe when it takes him 200 pages to figure out what any intelligent reader already figured out. Accordingly, the clues have to be revealed slowly, throughout the book, for the book to remain interesting. That forces the book to be about the process of finding the clues, rather than purely about understanding the clues presented in a jumble.
(This, incidentally, is one of the problems in the first Filo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case. The author presented us with all the evidence we needed to know who the murderer was in the first chapter, and so the rest of the book dragged on a bit. Granted, Philo Vance also figured out who the murderer was in the first chapter, which made it a little odd that he didn’t tell anyone until the last chapter.)
Whose Body? does not give us all the evidence we need up front, but it does give us enough evidence early on so that we can make an educated guess fairly early. This does not spoil the fun as subsequent evidence is required to really substantiate the guess, and we get the fun of finding it out along with Lord Peter. It does, however, lessen the impact of the red herrings. The biggest of which is Cripsham and his pince-nez which were found on the corpse. There are several pages spent on speculating about Cripsham after he answers the advertisement Lord Peter put in the newspapers, but none of it is really credible at this point. There’s far too much we already know and/or suspect about Sir Reuben Levy’s connection to the corpse in the bathtub, and the latter’s connection to—if not yet to Sir Julian Freke, at least to the hospital next door to the corpse. Granted, it’s a little unfair to hold against a book that it’s too well written to have the second half of the book make the first half of the book a waste of time, but mystery has always been a self-conscious genre. And it is, so the idea that the murder was committed by a character as yet completely unknown and wholly unrelated to anyone already in the novel is not really credible. The result is that the extensive speculations about Cripsham just feel like a waste of time. In fact the whole affair of the pince-nez was over-played. Since the body was clearly arranged by the murderer, it was not plausible that the pince-nez were any sort of solid clue. Since they had to be either a practical joke by, or an attempt at misdirection on the part of, the murderer, they were never going to lead anywhere directly. The only really plausible connection they could have to the murderer was pointing to the murderer’s enemy. As soon as the owner of the pince-nez was utterly unconnected with anything or anyone else in the book, they couldn’t really have pointed to the murderer’s enemy, so they had to be merely a practical joke.
The character of Inspector Charles Parker was very interesting in this book—it is perhaps his best role in any Lord Peter book. I can’t help but think that Sayers never really thought that Parker worked. He continued to appear in Lord Peter stories, but he got ever-smaller roles. I wonder whether this may have stemmed from the fundamental contradiction in the role which Sayers gave him and the way she began to characterize him. Parker read theology in his spare time, which was an extremely interesting thing for a police inspector to do. It also set things up wonderfully for him to be a contrast in personality with Lord Peter who, while well educated, was an instinctive atheist. As Sayers put it more than once, Lord Peter would have thought it an impertinence to believe he had a soul. That would be a fascinating contrast.
Unfortunately, Parker’s main role was to be the Watson to Lord Peter’s Holmes. What makes this so unfortunate for the characterization which Sayers started to give Parker is that the ninth rule of Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments for Detective fiction is commonly held to be true:
The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
That simply does not work for an interest in theology.
I should note that this is not actually a strict requirement for a Watson. The purpose behind this rule is that the detective must have some reason to explain himself. A beloved sidekick who doesn’t understand what’s going on and who constantly asks for explanations works very well for this job, hence it’s popularity. However, merely thinking differently will suffice. Thus an intelligent person with a different background from the detective works well. “I would have assumed it meant [plausible inference], but I’m guessing you conclude something different from it?” It’s more difficult since there must generally be two plausible inferences to pull this off, but it’s very doable. In fact, Sayers herself did this with the introduction of Harriet Vane. While not Lord Peter’s equal, she was generally the most intelligent person in any room he wasn’t in. But she had a very different background and personality from him, and so they complemented each other in just this way.
The only other thing I want to remark on was the interactions with Sir. Julian Freke. Lord Peter’s obsession with fair play and giving the murderer a chance to commit suicide before being taken was something I was glad that Sayers abandoned. I think she did it in only two cases. One was of course Whose Body? and the other was The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club. It was perfectly fair to give Lord Peter his weaknesses, but this one just didn’t work. It wasn’t out of character, exactly, but neither did it feel like it was in character. Granted, Lord Peter tended to approach mysteries purely as a game, but anguish at realizing that it was real was probably as unpleasant for the reader as it was for the character. The big problem being that this is all a game for the reader. Consulting detectives are not realistic. If one is going to indulge in them at all, one should see the fantasy through to the end. The detective has undertaken to put right, by a right use reason, what was put wrong through a misuse of reason. He may conclude that justice would be better served by letting the murderer go, but it is not right for him to conclude that justice would be better served by not serving it.
And to be fair to Sayers, she did abandon this line of thought pretty quickly. Whose Body? is the only time Lord Peter gave the murderer the opportunity of escape. In The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club, he merely gave the murderer the opportunity to shoot himself before he was taken for murder and hanged. Granted, this is offensive to my Christian principles which holds suicide to be intrinsically evil, but it did at least still serve justice, if it served nothing better. And fortunately Sayers abandoned it entirely in her other stories.
Sir Julian Freke’s letter to Peter was also a little odd. First, it was strange he hadn’t prepared the bulk of it immediately after the murder on the assumption he would get away with it and the details should be preserved immediately for their scientific value. Second, it was largely a recapitulation of what we had already learned. Rather than being satisfying, I found it made for dull reading since we learned very little from it. It served in place of the denouement in an Agatha Christie where Poirot gathers everyone together and explains what happened, but with none of the revelation of when Poirot does it. There were no details commonly assumed to be one way but then put straight. There were barely any details even filled in—unless you count such trifles as the cotton wool placed under the surgical bandage to avoid bruising. Or that the bath running was to cover the sound of work rather than to actually bathe one of the corpses. And I think it’s telling that Sayers never repeated the many-page confession in her other books. Except possibly Inspector Sugg—who wasn’t really a character—no one learned anything from this confession.
In conclusion, Whose Body? is a fascinating first story for a detective. It clearly did a good job of introducing Lord Peter in 1923, and set the stage for some true masterpieces of detective fiction. It wasn’t uniformly great, as were some of Sayers later works, but where it was good it was very good. And I find it interesting that the character which changed the least in subsequent books was the Dowager Duchess. While Lord Peter took a little refinement through the books, Sayers really nailed the Dowager Duchess from the first page which contained her.
If you enjoy Lord Peter Wimsey stories even half as much as I do, please consider checking out my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.