Warning: the below has many and varied spoilers for ‘Whose body?’ – read at your own risk
I selected ‘Whose body?’ for rereading because, while it might not be my absolute favourite Sayers novel – though this tends to change with each reread –it was my first; and not only my first Sayers but my first ever detective novel, read long ago, even before I discovered that obscure gentleman, Sherlock Holmes or thought of picking up a Christie.
And as an introduction, it served wonderfully, exemplifying many of the things that I love about the genre. It’s immediately engaging, well-written, has a set-up both intriguing and amusing and it creates characters with enough depth and appeal to draw you in and make you eager to return for more. Most of all, it’s funny.
In short, I love this book. This post isn’t exactly a review (let alone a critical one, and it’s certainly not without flaws, particularly those of attitude) so much as some things I noted this time around.
The tone of the book throughout can arguably be seen as echoing Lord Peter’s state of mind. As he puts it:
“I love the beginning of a job – when one doesn’t know any of the people and it’s just exciting and amusing….it is a game to me to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt and I want to get out of it.”
And the story begins as playfully and cheerfully as a Wodehouse novel, with a similar intelligent eye to just the right turn of phrase and vivid descriptions:
‘His long, amiable face looked as though it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.’
The body itself is introduced, not with horror, but with absurdity, appearing suddenly in a bath tub and clad only in a red herring – that is, a set of golden pince-nez – allowed not even the comparative dignity of reading glasses.
“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.”
“Indeed, my lord? That is very gratifying.”
This lightness of touch continues in general throughout most of the book – and it never loses its sense of humour entirely – but things do begin to get a little more serious later on as Lord Peter becomes more involved in the case and can no longer view the participants – whether victims or suspects – with detachment.
For example, after Lord Peter has bamboozled his chief suspect into attending a (previously imaginary) bazaar and inadvertently screwed a thousand pounds out of him for a church roof fund, he begins entering a second, more thoughtful phase, of the investigation.
He tracks down Parker, who is reading theology (his favourite form of relaxation) for a heart to heart about the business of detection.
“There’s old Milligan, f’r instance,” said Lord Peter. “On paper nothing would be funnier than to catch old Milligan out. But he’s rather a decent old bird to talk to. Mother likes him. He’s taken a fancy to me…
S’pose old Milligan has cut Levy’s throat and plugged him into the Thames. It ain’t my business.”
There follows some discussion of Wimsey’s squeamishness in actually bringing the murder home to anyone, in which Parker – who acts in a refreshingly unWatson-like manner throughout the book, picking up a detail or two that Wimsey misses and ever ready to sound a squashing practical note when Wimsey over-speculates – is rather blunt about Peter’s ‘playing-fields-of-Eton complex’, pointing out that murder is not football; is not, in fact, what most detective novels so carefully set it up to be, a fair-play game between detective/reader and criminal, with nothing more at stake than the smugness of victory or a sense of hurt pride.
“You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.”
And that sense of responsibility, as we later discover, is one of the things that Lord Peter is most conflicted about and which colours his outwardly flippant attitude.
A little later, Lord Peter comes to the realisation of who the killer is and precisely what happened to Sir Reuben Levy. This revelation is a distinctly horrifying one – though we are not clued in to the details until later, but are instead given the usual list of vital clues from which we can make our own deductions as to exactly what happened (the killer, however, is all but stated). Overwhelmed by both this unpleasant knowledge and the need to act upon it, Wimsey suffers a bout of PTSD which is played completely straight and with sympathy. And here both Wimsey and Bunter become a little more three dimensional.
‘ “Bloody little fool”, said Sergeant Bunter.’
(On a side note here, I decided this time around that Mervyn Bunter is not so much a born valet as a born method actor, thoroughly inhabiting his main role as a sort of love-child of Jeeves and The Admirable Crichton (complete with Perfect Unflappability and a clothing fetish) but also revelling in the various other personas which detection allows him to adopt, by way of a change and an opportunity to ravage the port.)
After this, Lord Peter and the narrative have a brief interlude of peace while he returns to a more normal state of mind, signified by his enjoyment of Bunter’s up-date on the investigation: a formal and detailed relation of his pumping of a witness, in the Oscar-worthy role of an untrustworthy valet, making equally free with his master’s cellar and good name (‘ “Good God,” said Lord Peter, “I wish Bunter was less thorough in his methods.’) while privately deploring his interrogatee’s shortcomings in the important areas of manners and trousers.
‘ “Y’know,” said Lord Peter thoughtfully to himself, “I sometimes think Mervyn Bunter’s pullin’ my leg.’
The narrative then largely resumes its usual spirits, with a more sober interlude when Wimsey’s inner sportsman gets the better of him and he goes to Sir Julian Freke, ostensibly for advice on his nervous attack – which is discussed quite seriously and adds a little more depth to Wimsey’s character – but really as a polite warning, to give him the opportunity to ‘take the gentleman’s way out’. For this courtesy, he is rewarded by a gentlemanly attempt on his own life.
After this extra strain to the nerves, the description of the exhumation of Sir Reuben Levy’s much-abused body in the cold and the fog, is depicted from Lord Peter’s point of view as surreal and somewhat nightmarish, with glimpses of Dante’s demons and the grisly details implied under cheery dialogue.
At this point, it is all over bar the pompous and self-serving confession of Sir Julian Freke, which – most gratifyingly – is so very long-winded that he is interrupted before he can quite complete it and proceed to the killing-himself portion of the evening. He is therefore hauled away to face his punishment in the public eye, like any common-or-garden criminal.
I had recalled the Dowager Duchess, as rambling, kindly and amusing. Reading this again, I find that I had completely forgotten to add ‘enormously condescending’.
She is certainly considerate enough to aid her favourite son with his detective hobby but when the Duchess alerts Lord Peter to the body in the bath, it is partly to give him something to get his investigative teeth into, partly in order to help out Mr Thipps, who is naturally distressed and partly in order to subtly malign the vicar’s wife. She also starts here the less-than-charming habit of being unable to refer to Mr Thipps without patronising the ‘ little man’ (Lord Peter is not free of this vice either).
She is dutiful enough to take in the deaf and elderly Mrs Thipps, who is left high and dry after an overenthusiastic round of arrests by Inspector ‘Designated Incompetent’ Sugg (who might as well have had a ‘kick me’ sign on his back throughout the book).
She also lends moral support to Christine Levy at the difficult moment of her husband’s exhumation: but this support is tinged with repression – the Duchess does not provide a shoulder to cry on but a sharp reminder (‘Hush, Christine. You mustn’t cry’) that decorum must be maintained at all costs and never mind that that’s the man you love, lying about in slices.
The Duchess is “sure some Jews are very good people” which is very magnanimous of her (and, as an aside, this is a book which might have slightly more justification for a warning like the one mentioned in JJ’s post here).
At the inquest she scorns the coroner:
“…that cough-drop-devouring creature…”
And the jury:
“…what unfinished-looking faces they have – so characteristic, I always think, of the lower middle-class, rather like sheep or calves’ head (boiled, I mean)”
And she throws in a bonus ‘poor little man’ for free.
Noblesse oblige, but it doesn’t oblige you to be particularly nice about it.
Many detective novels, particularly the more light-hearted ones, make some knowing nod to the difference between detective novels and real life. In this one, underlining the tongue-in-cheek nature of the book, there are three separate references:
“Of course, if this were a detective story, there’d have been a convenient shower exactly an hour before the crime and a beautiful set of marks which could only have come there between two and three in the morning…”
“it’s only in Sherlock Holmes and stories like that, that people think things out logically.”
“Sugg’s a beautiful, braying ass,” said Lord Peter. “He’s like a detective in a novel.”
Three is perhaps not excessive, but it did made me wonder how many self-referential remarks are permitted before a book becomes an out-an-out parody or gets sucked into its own navel with a squelchy little pop.
I usually end up looking up at least one passing reference for every Sayers read. This time around I made the acquaintance of Origen Adamantius, a third century Greek scholar, ascetic and theologian and Charles Garvice, a sort of one-man Mills and Boon of the late Victorian era.
I mention this purely as a warning that, should you sample the two very close together, you may find yourself suffering from a species of unpleasant mental indigestion.