Whose Body? is my first ever Dorothy L. Sayers read and the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I have to say, her aristocratic sleuth is quite the opposite to so many other fictional detectives – he has boundless energy that pops from the page.
Opening sentence: ‘Oh damn!‘ said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.
Two simultaneous cases to crack
Set in the 1920s (and written in 1923), in Whose Body? we are thrown straight into the action. A body randomly appears in a bath tub and a prominent society man, Reuben Levy goes missing. On the surface, the cases aren’t linked, but Lord Peter Wimsey thinks that they, in fact, might be.
‘I love trifling circumstances,‘ said Lord Peter, with childish delight; ‘so many men have been hanged by trifling circumstances.‘
Lord Peter has no authority in an official detective capacity, but what he does have is a good friend in Detective Parker who comes to him for advice and lets him help solve crimes. Lord Peter’s footman and assistant, Bunter also has a key role in helping, the Watson in this situation, if you will.
Like any good amateur sleuth, Lord Peter has an arch enemy in Inspector Sugg, who – quite rightly you could say – tries to hinder Lord Peter in his investigations.
There were actually a few Sherlock Holmes references – paying homage to his greatness (something that also occurs in another slice of classic detective fiction, Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc) that I enjoyed:
‘Hurray!‘ said Lord Peter, suddenly sparkling. ‘I’m glad I’ve puzzled Parker. Gives me confidence in myself. Makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes.‘
Lord Peter’s unique approach
Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter isn’t a detective due to an innate talent or need to help, he, basically, needs a distraction from his post-war PTS and lack of an actual job due to his aristocratic position:
‘It’s a hobby to me, you see. I took it up when the bottom of things was rather knocked out for me, because it was so damned exciting, and the worst of it is, I enjoy it – up to a point.‘lord peter wimsey
This made it a little difficult to fully warm to him for me. There were a few stereotypical Jewish references too that felt uncomfortable to read and random verses of songs he makes up that were just distracting really.
So, Whose Body? wasn’t quite what I was expecting and I think it will take a few more books for Lord Peter Wimsey to maybe charm me but overall I enjoyed my first foray into the world of Dorothy L. Sayers. Reading more classic crime fiction is one of my 2022 reading resolutions, so I’m glad to have started on it!
- Get your copy of Whose Body? here;
- Originally published in 1923;
- 244 pages;
- My rating:
Please give Lord Peter some of your time – especially the four book sequence starting with Strong Poison and ending with Busman’s Honeymoon. Sayers is quirky, but she lets Peter Wimsey grow up and fall in love – with a woman in the dock for supposedly murdering her lover – and the result is one of the most powerful love stories ever, buried in the murder mystery and comedy of manners.
And the books are worth reading just to meet Bunter, Peter’s man. They met in WWI when Peter was an officer who ended up with shell shock, and Bunter served under him. He came to take up the position promised to him – and ends up as far more than a valet.
Gaudy Night, the third in this series, is widely considered to be her best work, but my personal favorite is the last, worth it for the exchange of letters in the beginning.
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Thank you for this breakdown! As I’m new to Dorothy L. Sayers this is so useful. And I will take your advice and read more, I’m very intrigued by the sound of this love story! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts 😊
I read these decades ago – and reread periodically. She is a writer of her time – and some of the dialogue might be considered offensive to modern ears (in the same way Mark Twain’s use of dialogue in Huckleberry Finn might be considered offensive) – realize it was intended for a mostly white middle class audience of readers. Speech is rendered with the way the author was trying to make it sound real for the audience. And both societies were strongly classist. BUT – you get used to it, and then the story shines, and you begin rooting for Peter and Harriet – and are sad that there are only two short stories after Busman’s Honeymoon for the aftermath. I’d love to hear what you think when you finish – and there is a lot learned from that love story in my own writing.
I have come across no better.