Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Murder Among the Blandings Set

Whose Body?, by Dorothy Sayers, Boni & Liveright, 1923

When I first began my work as an advertising copywriter, my good friend recommended to me the novel Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. Since said friend’s taste in books is impeccable, I took the advice and fell in love. Had anyone else suggested to me a series of British mysteries featuring a detective named Lord Peter Wimsey, I doubt I would have as speedily consulted the library.

I enjoyed the book so much, I immediately recommended it to someone else then set about getting other Lord Peter novels and short stories into my system. A rather comprehensive, well thought out chronology can be found here, and it is from this list that I began my march along the life of this peerless detective.

Best described as a bit more upper crusty (and less doltish) than Bertie Wooster, Lord Peter Wimsey is a descendant of the line of the Dukes of Denver, the second son in the line and thus not the heir to the title. This allows Lord Peter the freedom of his money without the responsibility to be fusty and serious. How he does this is by pursuing detective work. Rather less flashy than his predecessor Sherlock Holmes, Wimsey has a quiet, wry style, no less observational and deductive. He is assisted in his duties by his multi-talented valet Bunter, a character almost lifted point for point from Wodehouse’s Jeeves, though with an aptitude for photography and fingerprinting. Sterner than the original, Bunter will go so far as to bar the door to his master rather than let him exit the premises dressed anything other than precisely and correctly.

On the law side of the equation, Lord Peter is most frequently in the company of Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard man of penetrating mind, unlike the bumbling constabulary forces we see in Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie novels. To be sure, there are clueless chief inspectors in various small villages and hamlets throughout the stories, but where it matters, Parker is your man. Skeptical, loyal, and astute, Parker provides the muscle of authority when deference to the titled peerage is less that sufficient.

In this maiden novel, Lord Peter receives a call from his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver after an unidentified, naked body turns up in the bathtub of her church’s architect. Stripped of everything and apparently recently shaven, the body is adorned with a rather fine gold pince-nez. His investigation, following a different track from the local law enforcement, personified in the dim-witted copper Suggs who arrests both the architect and his housekeeper, brings Lord Peter across the track of a missing financier, Sir Reuben Levy. Convinced that the missing Sir Reuben and the unknown body are connected, Lord Peter sets out to unravel a number of curious coincidences that often threaten to lead nowhere at all.

Sayers writes with an admirable lightness of touch that is whimsical without ending up frippery and serious enough that one never loses sight of the fact that there is, in fact, murder afoot. She manages, also, to find suspense in strange places, as when Lord Peter is delayed to a luncheon by Bunter’s insistence on proper dress, those few stray minutes perhaps exposing a rather harmless lie he told in the course of an investigation that might possibly embarrass his mother. The conversation in question which the Duchess holds with the American businessman is a rather fine bit of writing as we watch her strain through her ignorance of the facts to strike the right tone and coax clues from her interlocutor.

At the same time she’s providing these light amusements, Sayers is also salting sneaky little clues throughout the text. There is something of an idiosyncratic, personal style authors have for where they deposit their clues in the text, and Sayers is different enough from other mystery writers in how she does it that the focus is on social behavior rather than strict evidence per se. In Agatha Christie, it’s usually a matter of sifting through a pile of raw data and discarding the bits that don’t hold up a creditable portion of a story. In Sayers, it’s watching each person’s reactions and chalking up verbal and other social cues. Part of the difficulty for modern readers might be in understanding the “right” behaviors for 1920s British society across various classes. Attentive readers to books of that period should find the going less rough. If you know enough not to swill a fine port while puffing a strong cigar, you’ve got a head start. (Even seasoned readers, to be sure, will benefit from the annotations provided here.)

Witty without being laugh-out loud funny, deadly serious without being morbidly obsessed with murder as are recent serial-killer-based “mysteries,” Whose Body? delights while feeling substantial. It’s perhaps less accomplished than her later mysteries (and as most first novels are), but if this be her weakest, she’s still miles above the competition currently running.

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