“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.”
“Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.”
Alfred Thipps is distressed to find the corpse of a strange middle-aged man in his bathtub, nude except for a pince-nez—it will upset his mother so much. On the same blustery night, Sir Reuben Levy, the well-known financier, disappears from his home. The connection seems clear, but nothing in this case is straightforward. Even the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey may have met his match with these fiendish crimes.
Whose Body? is a promising debut for Dorothy L. Sayers. Not only is it a satisfying mystery in its own right, but it is also an ambitious reframing of the golden-age detective as an emotionally complex character. Wimsey and his menage (butler/crime-scene technician Bunter, Wimsey’s garrulous mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver, good cop Parker, and bad cop Sugg) are introduced seamlessly and given a pair of fascinating, if less than realistic, crimes to sink their teeth into.
Sir Reuben Levy is a devoted family man, well-liked by everyone. Still, no one as rich and powerful as Sir Reuben can be entirely without enemies. Several of his business rivals would benefit from his removal, as would his daughter’s rejected suitor, or maybe even his wife’s former fiancé. The corpse in the bathtub in Battersea is even more of a question mark.
The longer the relationship between these two crimes remains ambiguous, the more possibilities there are for Wimsey to play with. He has a splendid time romping through two separate crime scenes with all the most cutting-edge 1920s forensic technology. The clues suggest a crime that is incredibly complicated even by GAD standards. This means that, while the culprit is easy to spot, the mechanics of the crime are more difficult to suss out. I can’t emphasize enough how gloriously bonkers this entire scheme is—the many little pieces fit together perfectly, but it’s impossible to imagine any killer being able to pull it off.
To say that the racial politics of Whose Body? are highly problematic would be an understatement. Sayers is obviously being careful to portray Sir Reuben in a positive light, yet his good qualities are mostly highlighted by disparaging other Jewish people’s efforts to assimilate. Without being at all vulgar, Sir Reuben is a self-made man who doesn’t put on airs, an openly Jewish man who doesn’t pretend that “he got his nose in the Italian Renaissance.” By pointing out what Sir Reuben is not, Sayers is certainly painting a vivid picture of what her characters (and perhaps she herself) expect a Jewish man to be like. Wimsey and others are very much of their time by frequently referring to him simply as a “Jew” or a “Hebrew” and identifying people as Jewish based only on physical appearance. The book is littered with negative remarks about Jews, and sometimes our “good” characters mildly counter that “a Jew can be a good man.” How open-minded!
Sayers herself did not consider the novel anti-semitic—when her publisher asked permission to delete some of these references for a new 1935 edition, she agreed, but argued that the Jewish characters were actually the ones who came off best. Still, when readers of the 1930s think you’ve gone overboard on anti-semitism, you probably have.
Even without these questionable moments, early Wimsey is A Lot. The prototypical idle young man about town, Lord Peter burbles on and on in an aristocratic drawl, quoting poetry and dropping arcane references wherever he goes. Wimsey is portrayed less as a detective than as a connoisseur, a collector of crimes who displays his triumph in the case of the Attenbury emeralds as proudly as the objets d’art that fill his study. He approaches suspect interviews and clue-gathering with the cheerful, relentless optimism of one who refuses to be fobbed off with inferior goods—only the best for Lord Peter, and he won’t leave until he gets it. His oblivious entitlement is often hard to take.
Wimsey initially seems to skate along the surface of life. As he becomes more emotionally involved in the case, however, this seemingly simple character reveals unsuspected depths. Despite his carefree manner, Wimsey is actually conflicted about his role as an amateur detective, as he discusses with his friend Detective Parker.
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. If it was all on paper I’d enjoy every bit of it. I love the beginning of a job—when one doesn’t know any of the people and it’s just exciting and amusing. But if it comes to really running down a live person and getting him hanged, or even quodded, poor devil, there don’t seem as if there was any excuse for me buttin’ in, since I don’t have to make my livin’ by it. And I feel as if I oughtn’t ever to find it amusin’. But I do.
This long conversation between Wimsey and Parker is worth examining in detail, as Sayers lays out a philosophy of detection. Interestingly, it’s the Scotland Yard detective who argues that there’s nothing inherently noble about being a police officer. Not being wealthy like Wimsey, Parker can’t afford to be idealistic about his profession, which he chose mainly because it is “useful” and offers the chance for upward mobility. “It’s no better to do it for money than to do it for nothing,” according to Parker, so a gifted amateur has as much right as anyone else to take an interest in murder as long as they realize the seriousness of what they’re involving themselves in.
Wimsey does know, which is exactly what worries him. He can’t help the sense that meddling in human lives for his own entertainment is on some level morally indefensible: “Havin’ to live is the only excuse there is for doin’ that kind of thing.” He is irresistibly attracted to a game he doesn’t have the stomach to play, and the consequences of his own actions frighten him.
“Look here, Peter,” said [Parker] with some earnestness, “suppose you get this playing-fields-of-Eton complex out of your system once and for all. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that something unpleasant has happened to Sir Reuben Levy. Call it murder, to strengthen the argument. If Sir Reuben has been murdered, is it a game? and is it fair to treat it as a game?”
“That’s what I’m ashamed of, really,” said Lord Peter. “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.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said the detective, “but that’s because you’re thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That’s all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn’t any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent—what’s that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, ‘Well played—hard luck—you shall have your revenge to-morrow!’ Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.”
“I don’t think you ought to read so much theology,” said Lord Peter. “It has a brutalizing influence.”
All of this public-school sporting rhetoric evokes the specter of the first world war, very deliberately so. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that, despite Wimsey’s flippant manner, his war experiences have shaped him permanently and profoundly. He outright states that he investigates crimes as a way of coping with PTSD (depicted in surprisingly realistic terms) and even to recapture an adrenaline rush that is missing from civilian life. In addition, however, the way Wimsey talks about detection echoes the way he talks about the war: an exciting enterprise, entered into lightly, that quickly becomes a nightmare of guilt as Wimsey finds himself responsible for other men’s deaths.
Whose Body? is not perfect by any means, but it lays a strong foundation for the series to come. Just when the reader is getting thoroughly fed up with Wimsey’s affectations, Sayers reveals the demons that are driving him. It’s a cliche at this point, and others (like Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion) have arguably done it better, but Sayers got there first. Conventional wisdom is that golden-age detective fiction served as escapism for readers traumatized by the war; here, however, only a few years after the Armistice, those shared traumas are front and center. Wimsey certainly can’t escape them, and neither can the reader.
Sadly a lovely, rich character beat cannot overcome what feels like a very slight and rather routine mystery. Happily Lord Peter would have more interesting cases to come so if you’re new to the character I would suggest jumping in later in his adventures and returning to this at a later point.
Told almost entirely through dialogue, this debut shows off most of Sayers’ considerable virtues and faults – the basic story is ingenious and worked out in close details, but proves to be somewhat under-nourished as there is really only enough plot here for a novella at best and so figuring out the culprit turns out to be rather easy due to the paucity of credible suspects. As a result, there is lots of fatuous talk that leads nowhere and mainly serves as padding while Wimsey’s tendency to go off at any tangent soon becomes grating, as does the sub-Wodehouse banter with his ultra-reliable Jeeves-like manservant (and former batman), Bunter. And then there is the antisemitism…
The first Wimsey novel, and one of the most consistently entertaining.
Whose Body? is available in paperback and ebook formats from Vintage. This title is in the public domain in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and a free ebook version is available from Project Gutenberg.