Unnatural Death is the third Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel which Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, following Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. We are still several books away from Sayers’ best work—the Harriet Vane trilogy—but Unnatural Death is still very good. It is a solid, though flawed, mystery filled with interesting characters which Sayers writes extremely well.
The premise of Unnatural Death is that Lord Peter and Inspector Parker accidentally make the acquaintance of a doctor in a restaurant. Their interest is piqued when he tells them the story of trouble he had because he insisted on a post-mortem (examination) for a woman with cancer who died suddenly, several months at least before the disease should have taken her. No cause of death was found in the post-mortem but Lord Peter suspects murder and sets out to prove it, as well as to figure out who murdered her and why.
Unnatural Death is very much worth the read and I do recommend it, though it does have its flaws. The biggest of these flaws is that much of the mystery hinges on the murder method, and once it is revealed it would not work as described. However, something similar, if far less practical, would work, so I think that the book can be forgiven on those grounds. The pacing is also somewhat off. Progress is made in the case and then stalls out in an unsatisfying way, only to plunge us into an almost breathless final act. Patience with this is rewarded with a satisfying ending, however. In short it is not one of Sayers’ masterpieces, but if one goes into it with the right expectations it is a very enjoyable mystery.
If you like murder mysteries and especially if you like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.
(If you haven’t read the story and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)
(In what follows, I discuss the structure and execution of Unnatural Death with the purpose of learning from it because it is a good story. Everything I say should be understood as an attempt to learn from a master mystery writer. Criticism should in no way be taken as disparagement, as I dearly love the Lord Peter stories.)
Sayers starts out Unnatural Death in a manner she would repeat more than once in her short stories: by not naming Lord Peter for quite some time. If I recall correctly, Lord Peter’s name isn’t mentioned until the end of Chapter 2. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is within Unnatural Death as it’s fairly obvious who the pair discussing crime in a restaurant are. It’s possible that it was just Sayers being playful. Also possible was that it was meant to tell the story partially from the perspective of the doctor. This approach I really can’t figure out. I’ve never liked it when Sayers did it, but evidently she did given how often she used it. I can’t help but wonder at the purpose.
The first mystery which Lord Peter needs to solve is the identity of the doctor and his patient. This is an interesting choice on Sayers’ part because it didn’t serve any large structural purpose in the plot; Lord Peter would have had to send Miss Climpson to visit Leahampton anyway, so it was not necessary in order to bring her into the story. This may serve simply for realism, then, as doctors tend to be reticent to give details of their patients to strangers.
And of course Unnatural Death introduces us to Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson, whose most famous performance is probably in Strong Poison. She is a very interesting character both in herself and in her broader role. For various reasons, a great many of the early detectives in fiction were male, though quite often written by women. In fact three of my favorite detectives (Poirot, Lord Peter, and Brother Cadfael) are male detectives written by women. But however good the reasons were for most of the very early detectives being male, they were not essential. Women are inquisitive and social, but what hey tend to lack that the detective requires is free time. One obvious solution to this problem is age: old women have social skills sharpened over many decades and quite a lot of free time to go with them. And with this observation, we have Miss Climpson. (Lord Peter put it in a more in-character way, but I think you can see the wheels turning in the authoress’s head as he explains it.)
It’s also interesting to note that Miss Marple would first appear in a short story a year after Unnatural Death was published and would first appear in a novel two years after that. The characters are not particularly similar past both being old spinsters, but it would be interesting to know if there was any influence.
Miss Climpson represents a very interesting complementarity to Lord Peter. They are both clever with great skill at conversation, yet they engage in very different conversations. Both also command instant respect; Lord Peter because of his rank and Miss Climpson because of her age. They are also both experts at sizing people up in a few sentences, within their respective spheres.
On the other hand, she might be better considerd a counterpoint to Charles Parker. Both of them get saddled with the grunt work of things like looking up every death certificate in a county or every lawyer in a London neighborhood. They are both at the direction of Lord Peter, though Inspector Parker has some modest independence.
Putting them together, I think that Miss Climpson is something new. Looking over the various roles played by people in detective stories, the roles her’s bares some resemblance to are partner and subordinate who gets stuck with the gruntwork. Yet her role is neither of those; she might be best described as a sort of sub-contractor. It’s an interesting role.
Speaking of roles within a detective story, Inspector Charles Parker’s role stays much the same as it was in Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?, though it is slightly diminished because there is not an official crime as far as the police are concerned. And here we come to a bit of a limitation of Parker as a constant companion to Lord Peter. Being a policeman grants him all sorts of privileges and access Lord Peter would not have on his own, but it also comes with limitations. If Parker were more of an equal to Lord Peter intellectually, this would not be a problem as Parker could at least converse with Lord Peter about the problem. And to be fair, a bit of that does go on, but Parker simply doesn’t contribute much. His main contribution is to throw cold water on all of Lord Peter’s conjectures. And that’s not really long-term sustainable.
That said, most murder mysteries do feature a body, so it’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle for Inspector Parker as a companion to Lord Peter. Ultimately I suspect that he was replaced by Harriet Vane because she was simply a better fit.
Miss Climpson’s investigations prove very useful, though the downside to her mode of intelligence gathering being gossip means that one needs to read through a fair amount of gossip. Sayers does a good job of rendering it tolerable, but at least to me it was not the highlight of the book.
With the advertisement Lord Peter puts in or the Gotobed sisters and the subsequent murder of Bertha Gotobed, the plot shifts gears. What had started as a cold case mystery suddenly became an ongoing mystery. I have mixed feelings about ongoing mysteries, though I should note that they’re popular for good reason. They are, however, not nearly as calm as mysteries about crimes which are completed by the time the narrative begins. Much of that will come down to mood and temperament on the part of the reader. Having, as I do, three young children, I always appreciate calm since every day of real life is an adventure.
In this case the ongoing murders make good something Lord Peter says several times in the book—that murderers can cover up their tracks so excessively as to leave more clues than had they not covered their tracks. And indeed this happens here, with each murder (or attempt) getting progressively more daring and sloppy. This is very well for Lord Peter and Inspector Parker, who in the end do not have enough evidence to charge Miss Whittaker for her original crime.
Which brings up the issue of the method which Miss Whittaker used to kill her victims. It is true that air bubble introduced in the blood stream can kill a person, but from everything I’ve heard and read they have to be very large bubbles. Small bubbles—I was once assured by a nurse—are no problem at all and simply dissolve away without causing any harm. The reason why one always sees doctors (in TV, anyway), holding syringe up and flicking it to get the air bubbles out has to do with accurate dosing, not with the bubbles themselves being a problem. Ultimately I don’t know the exact quantity of air which would be necessary to kill a person, but it’s large. This is not an insurmountable problem for a murderer, as one could ultimately hook up a bicycle pump to an IV. Such an apparatus would be a bit silly and take away some of the sinister element of a merely empty syringe, but it would be doable. One would tend to suspect that such a thing would be detectable by the large quantity of air to be found in the circulatory system, but Miss Whittaker did tend to kill people in ways where their body would not be examined for some time, and I suspect that between blood settling and gas absorption, it seems at least plausible that such a method of killing would be hard to spot unless it was looked for.
On the other hand, I can’t recall ever having heard of this method of killing people since, either in fiction or in reality, which suggests that it is not really a practicable method of killing people. Which, it must be noted, is just as well, since it’s good for people to be hard to kill without leaving a trace. Both for the sake of fiction and for the sake of reality.
The other curious element of Unnatural Death is the way that in the end, Miss Climpson is very nearly murdered. What’s particularly curious about this choice is that she is both put in danger by a series of coincidences and saved literally at the last moment also by coincidence. Had Wimsey and Parker been sixty seconds later in breaking into “Mrs. Forest’s” flat, Miss Climpson would have been dead. Given that they had no idea that Miss Climpson was in any danger, this is very fortunate indeed. But on the other hand, it was pure luck that Vera Findllater had confessed to a priest that she had lied for Mary Whittaker and moreover written down notes to her confession complete with an street name in London, and moreover had dropped the note in a place that Miss Climpson found because she had dropped something in the same place. And had this string of coincidences not been enough, she still would have been safe had she not spotted Mary Whittaker (dressed in her disguise as Mrs. Forest) on the street. And that would not have been sufficient had Miss Climpson had an unerring memory for backs.
I must confess that I’m very dubious about the claim that while faces may be confusing, backs are unmistakable even in disguise. I’ve mistaken enough strangers from the back that this just doesn’t seem plausible to me.
So, ultimately, what to make of this string of improbably coincidences culminating in a last-moment salvation from death? Sayers did make it work, but I don’t think that it’s something to emulate. Improbably coincidences are most at home in comedies and Greek tragedies. The events starting with the faked gang-attack are probably my least favorite part of the book, as they really feel like they’re part of a different story. They’re well written, of course, but when I re-read Unnatural Death I tend to read this part very quickly.
In the final act of the story, Mary Whittaker kills herself. This seems to happen fairly often in Lord Peter stories, and I’m really not sure what to make of it. It’s seems far more accepted than makes sense for a putatively Christian society, though really devout Christians seem pretty think on the ground among people of action in Lord Peter stories. I find this part very distasteful, though I’m not sure that there’s much to learn from it other than “don’t do it”. Dorothy L. Sayers was, from what I’ve read, a devout Christian, so I’ve really no idea what to make of suicide coming up so often and so little remarked upon. Perhaps Brittain of the 1920s was more pagan than is appreciated today.