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.