WHOSE BODY? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers_Body01It has been years since I read anything by Sayers and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the debut of Lord Peter, who initially is very much presented as belonging to the ‘silly ass’ school of detectives. But like Albert Campion, he proves to have hidden depths as he investigates two separate cases that may or may not be one and the same. We begin in startling fashion when the dead body of a strange man is found in a bath wearing only a pince-nez …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Vintage Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.

“I say, Parker, I think this co-operative scheme is an uncommonly good one. it’s much easier to work on someone else’s job than one’s own – gives one that delightful feelin’ of interferin’ and bossin’ about, combined with the glorious sensation that another fellow takin’ all one’s own work off one’s hands.” – 

Told almost entirely through dialogue, this debut shows off most of Sayers’ considerable virtues and faults – the basic story is ingenious and worked out in close details, but proves to be somewhat under-nourished as there is really only enough plot here for a novella at best and so figuring out the culprit turns out to be rather easy due to the paucity of credible suspects. As a result, there are lots of fatuous talk that leads nowhere and mainly serves as padding and Wimsey’s tendency to go off at any tangent soon becomes grating, as does the sub-Wodehouse banter with his ultra-reliable Jeeves-like manservant (and former batman), Bunter. And then there is the antisemitism – for instance:

“I remember so well that dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew” – page 40
“… I’m sure some Jews are very good people …” – page 41
“A good Jew can be a good man …” – page 48

Sayers_Body_signetAnd these quotes are all from the 1935 revised edition! On top of that there are disparaging caricatures of the ‘lower’ social orders as well as dismissive comments about miserly Scots and parvenu Australians … But, for all that, one can still see however why some readers go so attached to Wimsey, even here. While most Golden Age detectives – such as Poirot, Father Brown, Gideon Fell, Nero Wolfe, etc – rarely develop as people and don’t usually show much in the way of human frailty, Wimsey belongs to that group of detectives who did occasionally show the man behind the mask. Indeed, he belonged to select group of inter-war fictional detective who not only had romance but a family life to look forward to in their future (like Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, Blake’s Nigel Strangways and best and most successfully of all, Allingham’s Albert Campion). In addition, we learn that Lor Peter for all is bravado, high spirits and apparently devil-may-care frivolity is in fact still suffering from bouts of shell shock following his experiences in the trenches during the Great War. And his friend Inspector Parker makes a point of reminding him that being a detective is not a game and that there is more at stake than the mere resolving of a puzzle:

“Look here, Peter,” said the other with some earnestness, “suppose you get this playing-fields-of-Eton complex out of your system once and for all.”

So what we have here is a rather thin introduction to a character that would dominate crime fiction for the next decade. When four years later Lord Peter returned for his third case, Unnatural Death (which I previously reviewed here), the results were much more impressive in terms of plot, character and prose style,  though sadly the racism and snobbery were still very much in evidence.

 

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries

  1. Whose Body? (1923)
  2. Clouds of Witness (1926)
  3. Sayers_Unnatural_DeathUnnatural Death (1927)
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
  5. Lord Peter Views the Body (1928, short stories)
  6. Strong Poison (1931)
  7. Five Red Herrings (1931)
  8. Have His Carcase (1932)
  9. Murder Must Advertise (1933)
  10. Hangman’s Holiday (1933, short stories, only some containing Wimsey)
  11. The Nine Tailors (1934)
  12. Gaudy Night (1935)
  13. Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
  14. In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939, short stories, only some containing Wimsey)
  15. Thrones, Dominations (1998, completed by Jill Paton Walsh)
  16. A Presumption of Death (2002; new novel by Jill Paton Walsh)
  17. The Attenbury Emeralds (2010; new novel by Jill Paton Walsh)
  18. The Late Scholar (2014; new novel by Jill Paton Walsh)

Most of the Sayers novel were adapted either for TV and/or radio during the 1970s and 80s. Ian Carmichael, who played the role on TV in the 70s also played the part on radio and starred in a five-part adaptation of Whose Body? produced for BBC radio by Simon Brett and broadcast between 30 December 1973 and 27 January 1974. For some reason, this version, while released on CD way back when and available for download from iTunes et al, is not being repeated on BBC radio. In its place is a 1987 production with Gary Bond in the main role for a 90-minute Christmas production that was quite remarkably faithful to the novel. Thankfully all the racial slurs were removed and it all worked remarkably well, especially the finale which details the discovery of a body and the confession of the murderer, which is especially eerie and dramatic.

Body-crop

Lord Peter Wimsey / Whose Body?
Broadcast: BBC Radio 4 (30 December 1973-27 January 1974)
Producer/Director: Simon Brett
Script: Chris Miller
Running time: 5 x 28 minute episodes
Cast: Ian Carmichael Wimsey), Peter Jones (Bunter), Patricia Routledge (Duchess), Norman Bird Thipps), Gabriel Woolf (Parker), Betty Huntley-Wright (Mrs Thipps), Nigel Lambert (Freddy Arbuthnot), Blaine Fairman (John Milligan), Peter Williams (Graves), Richard Gulden (Mr Crimplesham), Bernard Archard (Sir Julian Freke), Peter Tottenham (Cummings), Betty Cargill (Lady Levy)

Crime at Christmas / Whose Body?
Broadcast: BBC Radio 4 (26 December 1987)
Director: Vanessa Whitburn
Script: Michelene Wandor
Running time: 87 minutes
Cast: Gary Bond (Lord Peter Wimsey), John Cater (Bunter), Peter Rowland (Parker), Michael Graham Cox (Sir Julian Freke), Veda Warwick (Duchess of Denver), Kim Durham (Mr Thipps/Dr Grimbold/Waiter), Terry Molloy (John P. Milligan/Sugg/ Gerald, Duke of Denver), Christopher Benjamin (Mr Crimplesham/Foreman/Sexton), Geoff Serle (Sir Reuben Levy/Graves/Coroner), Charlotte Martin (Gladys Horrocks/Lady Levy)

I submit these this reviews for Bev’s Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘object of any other colour’ category for the white bathtub:

07-Vintage-Golden-Scavenger-2016

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

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This entry was posted in 2016 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, Dorothy L. Sayers, England, London, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philo Vance, Radio, SS Van Dine, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to WHOSE BODY? (1923) by Dorothy L. Sayers

  1. A thoughtful and well-written review as ever, Sergio. I have to say, though, that I found that anti-Semitism very hard to take in this novel. You also make a good point about both the cleverness of the plot and its brevity. That said, though, I also see how it contains the seeds for what would later be a solid series.

    • Thanks Margot, very good of you. There is that pernicious argument that ‘everybody’ made racist comments like that at the time, but even in crime fiction this wasn’t true. Along with (for different reasons) Have His Carcase (which I always found really overlong) and Busman’s Honeymoon (which is just very slight), I would have to consider it the least of the Wimsey books

  2. realthog says:

    I too found the snobbery and the antisemitism difficult to take, not to mention Lor Peter’s (to repeat your quite admirable typo) interminably woffling. But I also had issues with the plot, which struck me as reaching heights of implausibility that had me, basically, laughing the book out of court. If Ngaio Marsh had produced that plot you’d be putting the boot in . . .

    Although I like some of the Wimsey novels I’ve read (especially The Nine Tailors, I’ve never warmed to the character himself. The Carmichael incarnation is of course an escapee from Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits of the Year, but even in the novels there’s much of that — the acceptance of privilege as if it were a virtue. I do know that Sayers made efforts to atone for that, but so far as I’m concerned they weren’t very good efforts.

    • Thanks for that John (I just may leave the typo in there 🙂 ). It is interesting to me how the more romantic conception of the character, the shell shock sequence, to bely the ‘silly ass’ exterior, is already partially in place, but I much prefer it in a Campion book. I agree, the plot is ingenious but daft, and yes, the Marsh comparison is very apt (I just cannot get into her books, but will try again, really I will). But as you say, it is the class element that sinks a lot of this – in this regard I really do much prefer Van Dine, though Wimsey is, in conception, a deeper character than Vance, no question. Not necessarily any more believable though!

      • Todd Mason says:

        I was wondering to what degree imitation of Vance, apart from all those dropped Gs, was responsible for what’s worst about the book.

        • Well, Sayers definitely got there first, one has to credit that, and they more in common if you include the endless footnotes and the digressions to discuss art and literature. Van Dine / Wright has more knowledgeable in these matters though and, as Symons points out, in the early books he puts that knowledge to good use by integrating it into the plot (which is why I like the first 4 Vance books in particular). Ans both are not as unconcerned with real-life feeling as they might at first suggest …

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    A perfect summary of both her strengths and weaknesses in a first novel. Stared it myself last week and was pretty much stunned by its deficits.

  4. tracybham says:

    When I reread some of the earlier novels I did not enjoy them as much as I expected to. Sometime I hope to reread the novels with Harriet, although I did not enjoy Gaudy Night one a reread that much either. And I may try Nine Tailors again too.

    • Thanks Tracy. I am a big fan of Nine Tailors but not of Gaudy Night, which for its many points of interest, suffers from a colossal case of snobbery. I would prefer Bellona Club or Murder Must Advertise.

      • tracybham says:

        Murder Must Advertise has always been my favorite and I wonder how I would like it now on a (third or fourth) reread. What I really want to do is re-watch all the TV episodes, both series.

        • It has been ages since I saw the Carmichael series, but I remember the adaptations of Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors being pretty decent, though I prefer the later Petherbridge series.

          • Janet Angelini says:

            The Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge series are hugely superior to Ian Carmichael – far more sensitively played and giving the darkness in the Wimsey character.

          • Damn straight! The style is so different between the two that they are hardly worth comparing, except maybe the version of NINE TAILORS.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m one of those who is inordinately fond of Wimsey. I know there are issues with the racism and classism but I think we have to accept that these books were written in a time when our more enlightened outlook didn’t exist. You hit upon what I like about Sayers’ novels – they *are* novels, and the characters develop and there is much more depth to them than just a mystery story. As the books progress and Sayers’ technique improves, Wimsey becomes a rounded out person with all the complexities that go with human nature. This is certainly not Sayers’ strongest novel and not one I revisit often. I do love Bellona, Advertise and Nine Tailors very much, and Gaudy Night too – the snobbery is unpleasant but she evokes the setting and characters so well.

    • Thanks for that Karen, and I take your point completely about why readers are so drawn to Wimsey (Campion and Ellery Queen are the only ones I can think of right now, of comparable vintage, that show any signs of change over the decades). Having said that chum, to say that a ‘more enlightened outlook didn’t exist’ seems much too much of a sweeping statement, and designed to let off Sayers off much too easily it seems to me. There are plenty of crime novels from that era, let alone ‘straight fiction’ that managed without the snobbery, racism and anti-semitism!

      • kaggsysbookishramblings says:

        True – she was pretty much a snob, wasn’t she? 🙂

        • That she was and what is interesting is to look at works in the 20s by the likes of Maugham and, say, a genre market leader such as Edgar Wallace, and see how commenting on that element of the British class system is often an indirect element of their fiction.

  6. Colin says:

    The only Sayers novel I’ve read is The Nine Tailors, one of Carr’s recommendations I think, and I remember really not liking it. I couldn’t tell you why now, it’s been well over a decade ago, but the story and characters simply did not engage me and I avoided her ever since.

    • I like that one a lot, but it is a very weird book in some respects, with a climax that has a kind of apocalyptic feel, but which i greatly admire (trying not say, “it really rings my bell” 🙂 )

      • Colin says:

        I think the whole bell ringing business just turned me off and I remember feeling a bit bored by proceedings at an early stage. As I say, it’s been a long time but I thought then that Sayers probably just wasn’t for me.

        • Some people think the book is a real drag, so I can well understand this – I’m no campanologist but really found it had a compelling texture to it. MURDER MUST ADVERTISE and THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB see her at something like her best in my view

          • Colin says:

            OK, I’ll keep those in mind if I feel like dipping into her work again.

          • On the other hand, you could always pick a Mergery Allingham or three 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I haven’t read much of her either, Tiger in the Smoke being the only one which springs to mind. Would you say she’s markedly better than Sayers?

          • She is no snob and doesn’t have her characters make anti-semitic remarks for starters! She was more varied, writing adventure stories as well as whodunits and I like how she had her main character get noticeably older, gets married, has children, and changes as a result. Tiger is probably her best and is in the adventure / treasure hunt mode. Police at the Funeral, Death of a Ghost are two of the earliest whodunits and stand up well but to be honest i think they are all good and there is lots of variety in them.

          • realthog says:

            I’d second that. A couple of the early novels are, as you’d expect, a bit raw (and her short stories aren’t wonderful), but I’ve never come across an Allingham that I’ve actively disliked.

            (I’m getting a bit deja vu here. Have we had this conversation before?)

          • Possibly but Allingham is always worth discussing John 🙂 I agree though, BLACK DUDLEY and MYSTERY MILE are clearly two of the earliest, but they still have that distinctive charm. Must admit, I am struggling to remember many of her her short stories, but I reckon I’m agreeing with you outright!

          • realthog says:

            I was thinking of pre-Campion stuff like The White Cottage Mystery (1928), which has some charm but, er, that’s about it. I haven’t read the even earlier Blackkerchief Dick (1923) and at the moment have no plans to do so.

            I like all of her Campion novels, although the very last ones, like The Mind Readers, seemed to me to be running out of steam.

          • Not read anything pre BLACK DUDLEY, in fairness, and keep putting off MIND READERS for fear of what I might find …

          • Colin says:

            Right then, I’ll keep an eye out for those two. Thanks. 🙂

          • Always a pleasure matey!

  7. davidsimmons6 says:

    Thanks for the review. I couldn’t remember having read any Sayers, so this year I started with Whose Body. I like to meet a character who’s going to reappear in a series as he presents for the first time. Wimsey I didn’t like: too pretentious and obnoxious. The plot was very complicated. To be fair, I went to Gaudy Night because so many rankings rated it highly. It was slow, too slow to develop. Of its 500+ pages, Wimsey didn’t show up until 300 or so. He reminded me of Philo Vance, a similar type I did like, but he became too repetitious by the 6th or 7th novel. I think I’m done wit Sayers.

    • Thanks David – like you, I always like to start at the beginning, but I will say that I think skipping to Gaudy was probably a potentially fatal error as it is unlike practically any of the other Wimsey books. If you can bear it, try Murder Must Advertise or The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or, as I keep pushing on everybody else, The Nine Tailors – you might like them much, much more and at least you can see why so many were/are fans of her work (and prepared to overlook her obvious failings in terms of social outlook)

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    I once attempted to read Dorothy Sayers but gave up. I found her books dull, boring and mediocre with an insufferable detective and full of classism.

    • Hi Santosh – I know a lot who would completely agree, as do I in some respects. But she was also in her later work a splendid prose stylist and if you can bear it, and you haven’t already, I would at least suggest a look at The Nine Tailors, which is a very unusual performance it seems to me.

  9. I’ve slogged my way through a couple Dorothy Sayers mysteries, but I’ve had the same reaction as you and many of your commentators had. The video versions of Sayers mysteries are marginally better.

    • Thanks George – I am a big fan of the mini-series A Dorothy L Sayers Mystery starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter as Wimsey and Sayers surrogate Harriet Vane, which i thought was splendid.

  10. Deb says:

    I like Sayers, but she comes nowhere near Christie, IMHO. I remember first reading WHOSE BODY probably 40 years ago and wondering why they couldn’t figure out if the body was actually that of a Jewish man seeing as circumcision was relatively uncommon in Europe at the time except for religious reasons. I kept my smutty opinions to myself, of course, then almost fell over laughing a few years back when I read a P.D. James essay where she made exactly the same point!

  11. Todd Mason says:

    Suddenly I’m wondering to what degree Chesterton and Sayers might’ve influenced the Inklings, given a certain shared legacy of hidebound conservatism and still at the same time seemingly a desire to challenge it, and to damned well make the so-called generic forms as serious a consideration of human state and fate as any literature is. Wodehouse might also have come along.

  12. Interesting review and comments, Sergio. Got to try one of the Peter Wimsey novels. I don’t have a problem with racism in the narrative because the story is a work of fiction and, frankly, I couldn’t care less what the author’s personal views on that issue are. I read fiction for entertainment.

    • Thanks for the interest Prashant – this is definitely not the book to start with if she is a new author though as it does not show her talent for plotting and prose to best advantage. I really enjoyed the comments here (and on Facebook) and I know what you mean – quite what one is prepare dot put up with in the name of entertainment must be a personal thing. What I find weird and unsettling is when people claim not to see the problem at all – disheartening at best …

      • Absolutely, Sergio. I find real acts of racism, in word and deed, very disconcerting. It’s often ignored and condoned, deliberately or otherwise; and sometimes it’s so subtle, as in everyday conversations, that it’s completely overlooked or glossed over. If I let its presence in fiction and other forms of literature bother me, then I guess I wouldn’t be reading most of the comic-books I do, including Tintin, Phantom, and Mandrake.

        • It has been decades since I read any of the Lee Falk strips – I take it they are somewhat condescending to other races? What a shame … Used to love them as a kid, but I’m all grown up now 😉

  13. Santosh Iyer says:

    I find that negative references to Jews are still present in current editions of this book, whereas all anti-Jew statements have been removed from Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie.

    • Interesting, isn’t it? I was surprised, having learned that the current edition of the Sayers was her later revision that the comments were still there … shocking, really. Well, for me anyway, seems others are just not that bothered by it.

      • neer says:

        Well, I am glad that anti-racist statements haven’t been removed. I don’t like ‘white-washing’ of books and characters at all. Racism was and remains an ugly reality. I want to squirm while reading texts. I want to get angry and disconcerted. The reality of the past should not be obliterated because that negates the efforts of those who struggled against these prejudices and injustices.

        And Sergio, I disagree with you regarding Allingham. Her POLICE AT THE FUNERAL has such racist undertones that it left me aghast.

        • Hello chum, good to hear from you – oh, I agree, they shouldn’t be censored. What bothers me is that they still tend to get ignored, especially by Wimsey fans. As for POLICE AT THE FUNERAL, really? It has been. admittedly, decades since I read it (probably late 1980s for me), but I will certainly look at it again and get back to you

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            Yes, there is a very unpleasant piece of racism towards the end in Police At The Funeral.

          • How weird, really hasn’t rung a bell with me – but i now have it off the shelf. Thanks to goth Santosh and Neeru for pointing this out – I shall report back …

  14. Matt Paust says:

    You had me at “silly ass detectives,” Sergio. I’m about due to revisit Sayers, too, as I’m struggling to remember the last silly ass Golden Age detective story I’ve read.

  15. Come to this late, but really enjoyed your review. I re-read this recently, and was very underwhelmed, but then I didn’t have high expectations or good memories of it. This is a series that got a LOT better later. My big question would be how any adaptation could possible be made to last five episodes! Surely not enough content. I am intrigued by mention above of adaptation of Murder Must Advertize – I don’t remember that at all, though have always thought it would make. a great film…

    • Well, exactly Moira – this is ia thinn book in almost every sense! It has never been adapted for TV as far as I know, though the radio episodes are only half an hour!

  16. Yvette says:

    I don’t like Albert Campion (I did read MORE WORK FOR THE UNDERTAKER and while it was good, I wasn’t bowled over and I dislike that ungainly sidekick SO MUCH!) so any comparison is moot – I do adore Peter Wimsey (and Bunter) and wish there’d been more novels. Mostly I enjoy listening to Ian Carmichael read them on audio. He does all the voices and personalities PERFECTLY. Especially enjoyable in audio version is BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY, which I understand is not considered one of the best of Sayer’s books by any stretch of the imagination – but listening to it was a lot of fun.

    Speaking of bigotry, Allingham isn’t immune. I read one other of her books which I found actually repellent and swore NEVER to read another Allingham. But somehow I was convinced to read MORE WORK FOR THE UNDERTAKER and yes, I saw that this was a pretty good book. But I’m not convinced I’d read another Allingham.

    I would urge you, Sergio to have another look at Ngaio Marsh. Most especially: DYED IN THE WOOL and ARTISTS IN CRIME and a couple of her theater mysteries.While not all the mysteries are wonderful (I’ve read them all), several of them are classic as far as I’m concerned. I’m very VERY fond of Roderick Alleyn.

    • Hi Yvette – which was the book by Allingham you disliked so much? I’m a big fan of her light touch and for the depth she increasingly brought to Campion and his cases over the decades and on whole just can’t remember anything like the racism and snobbery I have found in Sayers’ books. I do like some of the Wimsey books (Nine Tailors especially) and had a very good time when I watched the stage production of Busman’s Honeymoon starring Edward Petherbridge though I agree, Carmichael was a terrific actor – it’s just a shame he was probably a bit too old for the part by the time he got to play it on TV (he had hoped to play the role about 6 or 7 years earlier I think). Petherbridge, who was only a few years younger at the time he started playing Wimsey, at least had the advantage of playing the role at the end of the detective’s career rather than at the beginnoing. I will give Marsh another go, promise, though so far the going has been pretty poor I’m sorry to say.

  17. Colin says:

    Just thought I’d pop back in here and mention the fact (not that the thread is actually supposed to be about her, but never mind) that I picked up two of the early Allingham books that have been mentioned here, Mystery Mile & The Crime at Black Dudley. They were only 1.50 Euro apiece second hand so worth a punt I thought…

    • Excellent stuff. Campion is a slightly mysterious character in BLACK DUDLEY, working on the fringes mainly. I’ll be reviewing POLICE AT THE FUNERAL, the fourth in the series (LOOK TO THE LADY / THE GYRTH CHALICE MYSTERY is the other one) fairly soon as it seems that it has some regrettable material in it toward the end and i want to see why i don’t remember it!

      • Colin says:

        I’ll look forward to that then – always keen to get more info on writers/series that I’m not all that clued up about.

        • These early books are more adventure stories really – it is only from DEATH OF A GHOST (1934) that they become predominantly detective stories, though her best book, TIGER INT EH SMOKE (1952) combines both.

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