Whose Body
May 22, 2023 11:37 AM - Subscribe

The stark naked body was lying in the tub. Not unusual for a proper bath, but highly irregular for murder -- especially with a pair of gold pince-nez deliberately perched before the sightless eyes. What's more, the face appeared to have been shaved after death. The police assumed that the victim was a prominent financier, but Lord Peter Wimsey, who dabbled in mystery detection as a hobby, knew better. In this, his first murder case, Lord Peter untangles the ghastly mystery of the corpse in the bath.<

Dorothy L. Sayers' first book featuring Lord Peter Wimsey is 100 years old.
posted by PussKillian (4 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this. It gave me an excuse to reread Whose Body? for the umpteenth time, and I noticed a lot of things about the novel that hadn't struck me before. Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1923! I'd never paid proper attention to the publication date before, but, my god, 1923! Conan Doyle was still publishing the Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, Agatha Christie was only just getting started, the murder mystery genre as we know it today scarcely existed. So for its time, Whose Body? is a highly innovative and experimental novel.

'His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.' Not only is this the first thing we're told about Lord Peter's appearance, it's the ONLY thing we're told about his appearance for the first six pages of the novel until he looks at himself in the mirror .. and even then we're only told about his clothes, nothing about his physical appearance. This is Sayers being consciously modernist, serving notice on the reader that we're not in 221B Baker Street any more.

People always say this isn't as good as her later novels, and yes I suppose that's true. The plotting is pretty messy when you stop to think about it (there are some awkwardly-plugged plot holes). But the assurance of the writing is breathtaking. By the end of Chapter 2 we've been introduced to Lord Peter, Bunter and Parker, all pretty much in the form they would remain for the rest of the series. She has her characters and she sets them up with speed and economy.

Whose Body? is all about bodies, really. So much sex and violence in the novel! The dissection and exhumation are gruesome and she doesn't spare us the details ('I took off Levy's head and started to open up the face'). The murderer says in his confession that 'sexual appetite' is at the root of the crime. Street prostitution is taken for granted as a feature of London life. And as in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club there's the dark shadow of the war hanging over it all.

There's a pulpy sensibility about the novel that I really like, and that IMO actually makes it better than some of the later ones. It makes me imagine an alternate reality where, instead of going respectable and becoming one of the Queens of Crime, Sayers took a turn into hardboiled noir fiction and became the British equivalent of James M. Cain or Mickey Spillane.
posted by verstegan at 4:04 AM on May 23, 2023 [4 favorites]

Yes, I think it's not as solid a mystery as some people like too - after a certain point, the killer becomes pretty obvious but unraveling the ins and outs (so to speak) still is interesting. And of course she uses a confessional letter - but god, I love how much it shows the terrible workings of his mind. He's such a egotist, so of course the murder makes sense when you see how it's a reflection on him being thwarted.

And yeah, it's so early! Everything is just getting underway!
posted by PussKillian at 10:25 AM on May 23, 2023 [1 favorite]

I just started reading these books in March and am already on Murder Must Advertise. I’m obsessed. I had never even heard of these before a friend told me about them this year and they might be my favorite mystery series now? Certainly up there.

Re: Whose Body specifically, I was absolutely sure that the Nietzchean superman killer who felt his intelligence entitled him to kill had to be inspired by Leopold and Loeb… turns out they were caught in 1924, the year after this came out! Must have been quite the mindfuck for Dorothy Sayers…
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:31 AM on May 26, 2023 [2 favorites]

I'm so glad you're having a good time, showbiz_liz - I don't know how I found Sayers, but I imprinted on her at a pretty young age and the books have been close to my heart for a long time.

There are some interesting true crimes of the era that inspired detective stories: Shedunnit has a few podcasts about them - here are a few (by no means all of them):

The Murder at Road Hill House
The Tichborne Claimant
The Queen of True Crime
Brides in the Bath
posted by PussKillian at 1:22 PM on May 26, 2023 [2 favorites]

« Older Barry: a nice meal...   |  The Great: You The People... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments