Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)

Rereading Sayers’ first Wimsey book, Whose Body?, reminding this reviewer why they so loved this genre of story. Sayers’ writing style is unobtrusively good. One is seldom consciously aware of the fact that the author has managed to draw deep and nuanced word portraits in a few sentences. Words are used carefully yet the author seldom makes a point of her erudition save for her choice not to translate the portions of a conversation that take place in French.

Although the method by which the murderer carried out his plans strains credulity Sayers does not resort to the all too common plot device of a massive international criminal conspiracy that one encounters in so many of English mystery/detective stories of this period. This murderer’s motivations are almost mundane in comparison to those found in the books of many of the author’s contemporaries.

A number of things stand out to this reader:

First, there is a base level of anti-Semitism in the Britain of the 1920s that may take a modern reader aback. People are described as “Hebrew” as if that was an identifier no different from “blond.” And many of the characters in this book are clearly prejudiced against Jews. Yet Sir Reuben Levy, the “self-made” and wealthy Jew around whose disappearance much of the book revolves, is not characterized as miserly or money-grubbing. Yes, he holds to the personal economies that helped him become a very wealthy man but he is also shown to be extremely generous to his wife and daughter. His marriage is portrayed as happy and sound and his wife, who braved criticism when she chose to marry a Jew is shown as having never had a reason to regret that decision.

Second, near the end of this book there is a short and stunningly effective depiction of PTSD. The behaviour described was at that time known as shell-shock but there can be no question as to what Lord Peter is experiencing. It is because of this PTSD that he sometimes withdraws in apparent fatuity. As a man who knows that deep emotions may trigger flashbacks he uses a variety of techniques to dampen down those emotions at moments of stress. This grounds Wimsey’s behaviour, and the acceptance of that behaviour on the part of those around him, not in his “class” or the fashion of his social circle but in their knowledge that he has, in a sense, earned the right to sometimes withdraw both intellectually and emotionally.

Third, Sayers treats her non-aristocratic characters as intelligent and rational people. One understands why Lord Peter would find Mr. Parker (a Scotland Yard detective) an enjoyable person with whom to dine. Parker himself is well-educated and is shown to read books that are as intellectually challenging as those that interest Wimsey. Indeed, when he and Lord Peter discuss the morality and rationale of detective work and law on a serious level it is often Parker who seems to make the better argument.

Bunter (Wimsey's 'man'), is another character who, written by a lesser author, could easily fall into caricature rather than characterization. Bunter does not drop letters from his speech and fall back on cant and argot. He, it is pointed out in the text, has been educated well. And the last line in the “shell-shock” scene makes it clear that what ties Bunter to Wimsey is not loyalty based on a class relationship but the loyalty that is forged by shared experiences in combat and physical deprivation.

Whose Body? is not the “perfect” mystery novel. The plot is over complicated and the denouement rather weak. This is, however, an impressive first outing for a detective, and a cast of characters, whose motivations and psychologies are better drawn in a scant few hundred pages than other authors can achieve after several books.


  1. I love the Wimsey novels and stories, but Sayers' assumption that all of her readers understand French fluently can sometimes annoy me greatly. One of the short stories ("The Article in Question") revolved entirely around the reader's ability to spot a single minor flaw in several paragraphs of spoken French.

  2. I really need to reread the Wimsey books. I read "Busman's Honeymoon" -- the last published during Sayer's life -- first, and that when I was 12. I should re-read them in order and see if it makes a difference.

  3. Karen, it does. Tracking the development of the character (and of course Sayers' improving writing skills - she started pretty good, and to my mind ended superb) provides for a secondary layer of narrative which would probably have been missed by someone reading them as they came out.

    (The Jill Paton Walsh continuation volumes... well. They're all right as stories, but she gets lots of small stuff wrong, and to me it's a constant niggle.)

  4. Gaudy Night - "starring" Harriet Vane rather than Lord Peter, is by far the best.

    I seem to recall that Miss Sayers also left her quotations from Dante untranslated...a problem for us undereducated folks.


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