U is for … UNNATURAL DEATH (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has reached the letter U, and my nomination this week, also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge, is …

UNNATURAL DEATH (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers

“I believe this is the case I have always been waiting for. The case of cases. The murder without discernible means, or motive or clue”

Dorothy L. Sayers was perhaps the great stylist of Gold Age mysteries – her lucid, limpid prose and command of plot structure mark many of her novels as amongst the highest achievements in the genre published in the interwar years. She remains enormously popular (and therefore in print) but it can be a little hard to be objective with regards to some of the details in her work that not only date it in terms of convention and attitude but also can be profoundly upsetting. It is with this in mind that I review one of my favourites among her earlier novels. This is the third published case featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, that most upper class of amateur sleuths, and it is one in which he declares himself fascinated by the possibility of cracking a case where no one even believes there is in fact a murder to be solved. In fact this is  a novel all about the way people perceive one reality as opposed to that which may lie underneath, about discerning secret patterns beneath a humdrum exterior and how realities are formed and perhaps even manufactured. Lord Peter comes to believe that, in one sense, he may very well be the one actually responsible for setting in motion a series of murders that, for his intervention, might not in fact have occurred at all.

The theme of subjectivity and of deeper meaning to be found below the shallow surface level of things is developed in a variety of thematic ways, some with considerable subtlety and acuity, though the choice to use so many narrative voices as part of this architectural grand plan does slow down the novel quite considerably at times. It opens with a plethora of raconteurs trying to put their stamp on the circumstances surrounding the life and sudden death of Miss Agatha Dawson, an elderly spinster suffering from cancer. Dr Carr overhears Lord Peter and his friend (and later brother-in-law) Inspector Charles Parker chatting in a restaurant and decides to tell them his sad personal history: he was the GP looking after Miss Dawson but found himself ostracised from the local village when, after her unexpected death, he insisted on an autopsy which however revealed no evidence of foul play. Soon rumours started to fly around about his conduct with the patient’s first nurse and he eventually had to sell his practice. On hearing about the sudden departure of the first nurse (now engaged to Carr), the dismissal of the family solicitor as well as the two maids. all shortly before the death of the sick but apparently feisty woman, Wimsey becomes fascinated by the idea that Miss Dawson was in fact isolated from those that knew her and then killed by a clever stratagem.

Wimsey decides to track down the maids and in addition hires Miss Climpson, another of a great many unmarried women that populate the book, to find the village where Miss Dawson died (Carr has been discreet on the point) and dig up any dirt – this leads to several sections in which we are told many tales of past events, mainly from gossiping ladies, which are then reported back to Lord Peter in a succession of italics-ridden reports delivered regularly by post. Thus the book develops into a ‘murder in retrospect’ story, the kind so beloved in later works by Agatha Christie, through a long successions of interviews about the Dawson family history and its intensely complicated relationship to the family of her great-niece and companion, Miss Mary Whittaker (a detailed family tree is provided at the back of the book). Parker is unconvinced by Wimsey’s instincts but this changes when one of the maids, Bertha Gotobed (one the books several humorous surnames), is also found dead in a secluded spot in a wood, also apparently from natural causes despite being a fit young woman.

“Greatly as I dislike that modern invention, the telephone, I think it might be advisable to ring him up.”

Along with the italics-happy Miss Climpson, many of the characters are highly amusing comic creations, especially the solicitor Murbles who dislikes the telephone and wears a specially made hat just for traveling – Wimsey himself however can be a real bore sometimes and frankly a bit of an ordeal to listen to with his endless quotations and fairly exasperating habit of going off at extreme tangents. Incidentally, detailed annotations for the various historical and cultural references in the book, by Wimsey and others, are lovingly described and explained by Bill Peschel in fabulous detail online here. Late in the book, in which Lord Peter talks with a priest about his own burden in opening the case and making the murderer run for cover and try to kill several potential witnesses, we are given an intimation that his long-winded verbosity may indeed hide some underlying insecurities. Sayers would attempt to deepen her depiction of Lord Peter in later books and this is aided by the dark seriousness in another section late in the story in which he is distressed when he uncovers another murdered woman who has been dead for several days.

The plot has an ingenious murder method, one that is rather neatly signposted in an early interlude when Lord Peter fixes a malfunctioning motorbike and which was pretty fresh at the time but which has since become a cliché of the genre. There is also a dual identity scam which isn’t much of a surprise either for today’s reader – on top of which the long-delayed climax hinges on a gigantic pair of coincidences towards the end with Miss Climpson happening to stumble across a crucial document while in church and then finding the house where the villain is living by pure chance, which also grates somewhat. But there are lots of good things on offer here from a plot standpoint and several clever bits of business especially relating to the masking of physical clues, and two creepy scenes in which men are almost poisoned to death. In addition to this the whole plot turns on a fascinating (I speak as a lapsed lawyer) if truly obscure bit of legislation surrounding the possible interpretations of just one word.

The book is also particularly notable, while exploring the less public sides of people’s lives, for its fairly forthright depiction of the love and friendship between two female couples – Miss Whitaker and Vera Findlater in the present and Miss Dawson and her friend Clara in the past. The sympathetic way in which these relationships are drawn (very well described over at Ela’s Book Blog) goes a long way to make up for the casual racism also found here (a group of undesirable journalists is referred to collectively as a ‘synod’ and the word ‘nigger’ is user negatively several times). There are some instances where Sayers clearly uses such words for shock effect, but there are other times when she uses them casually and unthinkingly, without the need for contextual counterweight. This is regrettable for any modern reader and remains highly problematic. While many defences have been made by fans and do have some validity (especially as regards the sympathetic West Indian character clearly introduced to serve as counter-balance), the fact is that not all authors, or even mystery authors, of the day succumbed to the use of pejorative racial epithets – and Sayers did.

Most of Sayers’ stories aren’t particularly notable as whodunnits and this is certainly true here, the book instead being much more concerned with the unraveling of the complex plot than masking the identity of the killer. As with Rex Stout’s stories, this provides us with some fascinating character studies and an intriguing conundrum which is then worked out with great expenditure of ratiocination until a completely logical solution has been arrived at in great detail. The theme of the undiscovered past, realised through forensic analysis of clues and genealogy, is treated with considerable complexity in the book – although this does mean that much of the action feels very passive as we are constantly being told about things that happened in the past and there is therefore very little forward momentum to the plot. This again though proves to be another stratagem on Sayers’ part as the last part of the novel proves unexpectedly suspenseful as we finally arrive in the present and villains and heroes battle for supremacy – this pays off in a particularly interesting fashion through a temporal shift in the point of view so that we first experience events through Lord Peter’s perspective and then go back in time and see it again from that of Miss Climpson, a technique that can be hard to pull off but which here is handled with great dexterity.

This is an impressively organised novel that explores its more serious themes extremely well but that also, unfortunately, falls prey to some of the worst prejudices of its time. A fascinating, troubling read.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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31 Responses to U is for … UNNATURAL DEATH (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. Ela says:

    Thanks for your link, Fedora, but my blog is Ela’s Book Blog… I’d rather not attract a certain kind of traffic ;-)

    I think like many writers of her time, Sayers used the word ‘nigger’ to mean simply a black person, and didn’t always mean it pejoratively. However, enough comments are made about the ‘gang’ who kidnap Miss Findlater and Miss Whittaker to really jar the modern reader.

    • Oops! Fixed the typo(s) – really sorry about that Ela.

    • Hello Ela, thanks very much for the comments. Because Sayers is so particularly preoccupied with class in her books, and her very aristocratic hero is idealised to such a great extent, it does tend to make these issues stand out more than in say Christie, who also has her moments in this regard. Personally I think she treads a fine line and usually does it for a reason but every now and then falls on the wrong side of it and I think it does boil down to ingrained attitudes to class and religion which are inescapably part of her world view – but this is a very big debate of course. On the other hand, there are also reasons why with authors like John Dickson Carr for instance it’s not really an issue.

  2. TomCat says:

    Am I the only one who rolls his eyes at those recent (well, fairly recent) covers? Their drably and gloomily illustrated front cover strike a false tone of somberness for most of her stories. Admittedly, they’re somewhat befitting for her last couple of books, The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night, but strike a wrong chord for most of her earlier books – especially with Whose Body?, The Unpleasantness at the Belona Club, Lord Peter Views the Body, Five Red Herrings and Murder Must Advertise. It’s like they’re trying to sell the idea that she was the Ruth Rendell, P.D. James or Elizabeth George of her era. They’ve done the same with Agatha Christie by increasing the size of the text to double the page count. See, it’s almost as thick as a modern thriller! Clever lot, eh? ;)

    Anyway, this is very insightful and in-depth review and makes me feel ashamed of the length, or lack there of, of my simplistic scribbles and musings. Good job!

    • TomCat, you are much too generous but thanks for the praise. And I know exactly what you mean about the NEL covers for the editions with the Elizabeth George intro – very gloomy. My mother has a complete set on her shelf and seen en masse like that its a real eyesore! I actually don’t mind the one for this book quite so much – for the review here I re-read a Gollancz omnibus from 1951 with a bright yellow cover! You can see that cover online here: http://www.bookitinc.com/pictures184/968397.jpg

  3. Bev says:

    Yikes! That yellow cover is quite……um. There. You can’t ignore it and you certainly couldn’t lose a book with a cover like that. :-)

    Wonderful review as usual. TomCat is right, your in-depth reviews really shine!

    • Hello Bev – yes, I wanted tempted to use it in the review but was afraid to scare the horses! The other two books in it are Crispin’s THE MOVING TOYSHOP and Innes’ APPLEBY’S END so not a bad omnibus! Thanks very much for the kind comments, greatly appreciated.

  4. Patrick says:

    I found this book the worst in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. While rather fun, it was embarassingly obvious whodunnit, why, and how from the 40 page mark, though it probably was ingenious when it first came out. The coincidences at the end bothered me, too. But Sayers had a fun style- I particularly liked the satire on racism here, as the police is far too willing to accept the “gang” theory.

    • Hello Patrick, thanks very much for the comments – yes, the bit about the kidnap ‘gang’ is pretty amusing and I like the scandal sheet bit of satire too – and the reference the ‘Black Mask’ magazine is certainly surprising. Personally this is actually one of the titles of hers that i think works the best (‘Nine Tailors’ is my favourite though) not least because to me most of Sayers’ books are fairly transparent whodunits so I never see the point of judging them on that basis. Which is your favourite? Many go for ‘Strong Poison’

  5. Patrick says:

    My very favourite Sayers is “Gaudy Night”, one of only two Sayers books in which I didn’t guess the culprit (“Clouds of Witness” was the other, but I really didn’t like the twist in that one). Lord Peter is gone for almost the entire novel, and Harriet Vane takes over the investigatin’, with interesting results, as a series of pranks get more and more dangerous…

    Why didn’t I enjoy Unnatural Death as much as others, even if I got whodunnit right almost every time? Well, instead of running around from suspect to suspect and finding out that Lord Ragamuffing’s long-lost brother-in-law is the mysterious stranger with the beard, they run around in circles asking “How was it done? How was it done???” And since I knew right away how it was done, it wasn’t nearly as much fun.

    • I see what you mean though I think it’s the themes of ‘Unnatural Death’ that make it stand out for me – on the other hand, ‘Gaudy Night’ have never been a favourite just because the plot is not very important and I wasn’t too convinced that it stood up as a novel without that kind of support even though it is nice to see the Vane Wimsey relationship scenario concluded.

  6. Yvette says:

    Thanks for such a superbly comprehensive review. While reading WHOSE BODY? recently – for the first time, which came as a surprise to me since I’d thought I’d read every Peter Wimsey book way back when –
    I realized that Sayers was really quite free in slinging offensive words around. But I’ll bet she never even realized that what she was doing might be, somehow, offensive to anyone. I don’t think this sort of thing done at that time was, necessarily, meant to insult. It was just, as you say, a particular person’s world view. But I do still agree that many writers did not indulge in this sort of thing. Dickson Carr is one. Josephine Tey is another. Ngaio Marsh, far as I can remember was another who abstained as well.

    But in WHOSE BODY? it is quite noticable. It’s up to the modern reader, I suppose, to decide whether reading certain authors is worth the trouble of overlooking certain words or p.o.v.

    We were talking about Sayers on my blog because of her recent birthday and I mentioned how much I like Ian Carmichael’s interpretation of Wimsey. I’ve learned that BBC radio frequently presents the Wimsey stories featuring Carmichael. Something all Wimsey fans might like to know. :)

    • Hello Yvette, you are quite right of course, context is crucial. I also think that Patrick’s comment above, that there was a parodic element intended in UNNATURAL DEATH with the reference to toughs who read Black Mask magazine, do need to be taken on board too so I don’t mean to be too sweeping.
      I really like the adaptations, especially the later ones with Edward Pethebridge – they are my absolute favourites in fact but I did like Carmichael’s interpretation as well, both on TV and on radio – these are currently being repeated in the UK on the BBC. I should do a review really …

    • Christine says:

      I beg to differ regarding Naigo Marsh. Have you ever read “Black as He’s Painted”? And I think in some of the NZ stories you get a less than enlightened view of the aboriginal people. I also seem to recall that she is not particularly sympathetic towards gay men, which struck me as odd given how much of her life was devoted to theater. But I may be mixing her up with someone else on that front.

      But Sayers was a woman of strong opinions and there are many places where satire leaves off and a genuine antipathy seems to set in towards certain groups, whether racist or otherwise. Her depiction of Jews is debated vigorously in many places and her treatment of the medical profession is uniformly unkind (they frequently appear as either villains or incompetents). The West Indian relative is the only person of color I can remember in the novels written by Sayers and he is highly sympathetic for a number of reasons. First, he is depicted as an innocent and second as a clergy man. Sayers’ father was a clergy man and the clergy who show up in her books are uniformly sympathetic. I suspect her use of terms we consider derogatory today (e.g., “nigger”) was consistent with common usage at the time. The fact that modern readers might be caught up short doesn’t make the use of the term any less prevalent when the book was written. Look at Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” It was banned for a while in school libraries in the US because it contained the “N” word. Yet Twain was deeply sympathetic towards Jim, his main black character, and held him up as an excellent example of humanity.

      • Hello Christine, thanks very much for joining the discussion and going in to such detail. I can’t really comment on Marsh as I am not familiar enough with her work but as you say, these were fairly common faults at the time. The interesting thing about Sayers is that she seems both seriously guilty of it and yet simultaneously more sensitive than most to the issue as a whole, which somehow makes it worse. The use of the “N’ bomb has to be taken in context, but even making allowances for historical changes in word-usage some writers are clearly blameworthy when ti comes to racism, I do not think there is any argument about that.

  7. Ela says:

    I think Sayers’ position with respect to her crime novels is explicitly stated in ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, when it’s not who done it which is important to her novels but how – “when you know how you know who”. Not all of her crime novels work in that way, but most do, I think.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, though I can;t pretend that i am a great fan of that particular novel – however, I will say that one of my fondest of theatre-going memories is from the late 1980s when I was able to get tickets to see Edward Petherbridge star in a production of BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON just after he had been playing the lead in the DOROTHY L SAYERS MYSTERIES on television – I was there on the last night so he made a very nice speech to the audience – lovely evening and an amusing trifle of a play.

      • Ela says:

        I’d be really interested to see the play version, and how it differs from the novel.

        • The play doesn’t seem very easy to get hold of, does it? Mainly I remember the fairly amusing climactic bit of business with the swinging chandelier/light fixture/orb which was a very nice bit of theatre (Petherbridge in his post-curtain call speech recalled an early reviewer of the play who advised patrons in the front row to duck).

  8. “a group of undesirable journalists is referred to collectively as a ‘synod’ and the word ‘nigger’ is user negatively several times”

    Why is “synod” a racist term? it means no more than a church council to agree on doctrine and presumably is meant ironically here. Even as late as the 1920s or 1930s “nigger” did not have any racist implications in common English usage- with the important caveat that that was a result of the fact that racist attitudes were socommon they were not recognised as racist.

    • Hello there, thanks for the contribution.
      What I meant to covey was the use of pejorative epithets which are invariably postulated as coming from a position of class-based superiority. In terms of the history of the word’s usage, I think by the 20s it was well established that ‘coloured’ would have been the non pejorative word to use at that time though of course it was inevotably viewed differently in the UK say that it would have been in the US – Sayers makes the point that some might find the n-word offensive, when used in reference to the angelic and inoffensive priest in the story. Sayers doesn’t give it any importance as the point of view seems to be one of lofty indifference. And the point surely remains that there were plenty of contemporary mystery authors at the time, like MacDonald or Carr who did not, to the best of my knowledge, use such racial epithets in the books they wrote at the same time. It’s not just the use of the word, it’s the attitude that goes with it surely.

      • Coming very late to the discussion and admitting to be DLS’s greatest fan I just would like to point out – while everything you say is true – Sayers had a very good ear for dialogue. In fact, much of her plot and character portrayals are driven by dialogue. There are instances where offensive terms in her novels appear mainly in order to portray the character who uses them.
        (For instance, in Gaudy Night – which might be her worst //mystery story// but is IMHO defiinetely her very best novel – the college porter argues that “what this country needs is a ‘itler” — I doubt that the author shared that view, but it does serve to capture a not uncommon attitude at the time and/or to characterise the speaker)
        While not necessarily true for ALL instances of offeniveness it shows, again, how complex the matter is – judging from another time, another societal attitude and telling apart author’s voice and character’s voice.

        Anyway. Just found your blog. I will enjoy reading it in both directions over the next days and weeks!

        • Thanks very much for the comments, greatly appreciated. I agree completely that these are complex issues though. That, after some 90 years, it is still an issue with readers is, i think, in and of itself, a fascinating issue. One could argue of course (playing devil’s advocate here) that Sayers’ tendency to put comments like that in the mouths of members of what are usually portrayed as the ‘lower orders’ is more significant that the statement itself, one that I agree we are probably not meant to sympathise with. I really rate Sayers as a prose stylist and enjoy her books – but even from your example it is clear that there is definitely snobbery at work here. It is true of many others of that era too, which as you rightly point out has to always be taken into consideration.

  9. joye says:

    You never really replied to faulconbridge’s point about synod specifically–coming at this post very late (did you know that this post is on the first page of Google results for “unnatural death”?), it struck me immediately. My suspicion is that you confused “synod” with “synagogue”. “Synod” has no associations with any particular religious body, and I assume that DLS was merely trying to evoke the certain… hmm… judge-and-executioner-in-one quality found in the unscrupulous journalist! DLS certainly had a taste for succinct witticisms of this kind.

    I’m also puzzled by your statement “nigger is used negatively several times”… at the risk of sounding a bit Miss Climpson myself, would you prefer if it was used POSITIVELY? (!!) ;)

    For the era, I thought Unnatural Death very good on racial issues–DLS never comes out and says “racism is bad” but that’s really, really, REALLY not her way of opining on any issue in her novels; she lets people talk in favor and against and lets the plot illuminate who’s right, and we as readers are supposed to be clever enough to draw the right conclusion. It’s right along with her absolute refusal to talk down to the audience in any way, with all her obscure half-quotations and six-syllable words that have me glad for iBooks in-app dictionary and the Peschel annotations.

    I thought it was fairly obvious that DLS, despite allowing racist assumptions, implicit and explicit, to put forward their theories (just as she treats anti-feminist assumptions in other books, and I think no one would accuse DLS of being anti-feminist), completely skewers them by the end of the novel. The “white slavers”/”black men after our women” panics are treated as one might a few decades ago have skewered the “Satanic ritual abuse daycare” scare, that is, as utterly without foundation, completely absurd, and created solely to ruthlessly exploit people’s emotions and shut off their brains.

    There are actually other books where I think DLS is much more prone to the kind of casual racism you’re accusing her of here. I can’t remember which book, or it may have been one of the short stories, I think she compares a color of yellow to a “Chinaman’s cheek” or something similar–really grotesque.

    By the way, you say that DLS is uniformly positive in her depiction of clergymen–have you read the LPW short stories? In possibly my least favorite LPW story of all time, “Bone of Contention” (it has a longer title but I don’t want to look it up), I felt that the clergyman in that story was treated very unfairly. DLS, in general, tends to be gently mocking at best towards all things High Church, and in this story the very High Church cleric really gets treated awfully, and the narrative voice seems pretty unsympathetic towards him. Maybe it’s hard to pick up on these cues if you’re not religious yourself though–I don’t know what you are.

    • joye says:

      “Clues” at the end there should be “cues”.

    • Thanks for all the feedback Joye – I think you are clearly more sympathetic to Sayers’ style than I am! My feeling is that her snobbery and racism come through loud and clear and the ending does not in any way exonerate this. To use the word “nigger” positively I mean that you can criticise its use instead of endorsing it or exploiting it, as Sayers does. And yes, I had a religious education and I agree that I was probably over-pernickety about her use of “synod”, which struck me as being boorishly superior and that may have made me read more of a religious dimension to the comment than its flippancy really deserves.

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