Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review - Dorothy L. Sayers's Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey Book 3) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by: Harper Torch
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Paperback, 264 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

"Any excuse to read Dorothy L. Sayers!

If I’m being honest, though, before Other Daughter, Unnatural Death was never a re-read for me. I tended to skim over Whose Body, Unnatural Death, and so on and skip straight to Strong Poison and the introduction of Harriet Vane.

But Unnatural Death had been written at exactly the right time and set in the right place—the London of summer 1927. There could be no better guide for daily life, slang, customs, places. It’s all what a professor of mine used to call “accidental evidence”. So I read it. And I read it again. (And I borrowed a block of flats while I was at it.) Sayers is a wonderful mystery novelist, but she’s also a great chronicler of the manners and mores of her time and I’m so very grateful to her for it.

Unnatural Death is now one of my favorite Wimsey mysteries. If you’ve never read Sayers before, it’s an excellent place to start. (And keep an eye out for that block of flats. You’ll know the one I mean.)" - Lauren Willig

One night at dinner Lord Peter and Detective-Inspector Parker are talking and a man at a nearby table overhears them and tells them his sad life story. He was a well placed Doctor, but after the death of an elderly patient with cancer his insistence that it was murder, not natural causes, resulted in his ostracization and his having to leave the small town where he had set up his practice, attempting to reestablish himself in London. The Doctor gives no names, but Lord Peter is so intrigued that he sets off to solve this "crime." Because Lord Peter is sure there is a crime. The only problem is means and motive... but he's sure once he starts poking around he'll find something.

The problem is, that while there were indeed odd goings on in Leahampton, the deceased, Miss Agatha Dawson, died quite awhile back and will or no will, the only person who would inherit was a great-niece, Miss Mary Whittaker. So why would she kill her "Auntie" if she was guaranteed to inherit? Once Lord Peter starts to intervene, secreting an old lady, Miss Climpson, in Leahampton as his agent on the ground, the bodies start to pile up. If the murderer of Miss Dawson had left well enough alone they would have gotten away with it because their was no proof. The ever growing stack of bodies is all the proof Lord Peter and Detective-Inspector Parker needed to know that their suppositions were right. Can they catch a killer before Lord Peter's conscience gets the better of him?

Two summers ago was my "Golden Summer" which I "created" solely with the intent to read all the great Golden Age mysteries which I had been remiss in not reading. I devoured Christie and Sayers, Allingham and Milne, Tey and Berkeley, getting lost in plot twists and dallying with dangerous killers. Some of the books I loved without question, others, others I had problems with. Sayers was one of those authors that was problematical. While reading only three of her books so far is more a sampling then an in-depth analysis, I'm not the biggest fan. Whether the books are parroting her own beliefs or just a product of the times, some of her views are quite racist and that doesn't sit very well with me. Interestingly enough my mother who was a big Sayers fan back in the day re-read the books with me and felt that they didn't retain the magic they had once possessed and that they are rather offensive.

So how do I justify so many people I know who love and admire Sayers? Well, actually it's quite easy. I mentioned in book club the other day that I had just finished a massive re-read of all Michael Crichton's books, to which a resounding why was asked. Because they are special to me because of the time I read them and how they made me love reading. Yes others might look down on them but to me they are sacred, along with the Star Wars novelizations of Timothy Zahn. That's what Sayers is to certain of my friends. A touchstone to a certain time, a certain way of life that they go back to again and again, remembering and loving what is best but glossing over that which might be objectionable to someone reading it for the first time. Certain books are in our DNA, Sayers will never be in mine.

I have to say that my first reaction to Unnatural Death was holy time jump Batman! This book starts out with an odd little biographical note that brought confusion galore to me and I had to go look up online to see if I was really reading book three. The thing is the note is written from the future date of 1935 by a Paul Austin Delagardie, a relative of Lord Peter's we've never met... yet. In actuality the book was written in 1927 and takes place in that year. So why was I forced to read all this weird spoilerish information about who Lord Peter marries (though I have always known that) and has a child with and that Parker would eventually succeed in wooing Peter's sister Mary? Gathering from some reviews online, this might be an addition to the book... again, I ask why? As one review I read said "I can't imagine why Sayers would include it in this book since it makes reference to any number of events in the lives of Lord Peter and his friends and family that haven't happened yet." So shame on you Dorothy L. Sayers, I shall now send River Song to beat the shit out of you for trying to mess with the linear narrative of Lord Peter's life.

Now I will get to the actual plot, not the preface of the book. Spinster Sleuths. Or spinsters that are sleuths and occasionally murderers. Apparently this book was originally titled The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters which I think captures the themes in the book far better then Unnatural Death. The question is... who came up with the first spinster who decided to put aside the knitting and start asking some rather pointed questions. I was going back and forth between Sayers and Christie, I mean, this book came prior to Miss Marple, but Miss Marple was based on another character of Chirstie's that came out prior to this book... looking into it, apparently it's neither! Apparently it was an American author named Mary Roberts Rinehart with her book The Circular Staircase. So there goes my theory of rivalling writers. But it's nice to give the spinsters some love. Or at least writers giving the spinsters some love because they aren't getting it elsewhere. Though Sayers seems to kind of hold them in contempt and uses them as a punching bag while viewing their lifestyle as a little too "outre," dropping one too many hints of lesbianism. Which I'm guessing she's against. Sayers has pretty well established her racist card in earlier volumes, so her being a homophobe wouldn't really surprise me.

As for the method of death. Anyone who is anyone will figure out that an undetectable injection that kills has to be an air embolism. I mean, they use this constantly as a trope in fiction, be it television, film, or book. Apparently this was Sayers idea, at least my googling hasn't proved otherwise. Yet critics weren't too kind about this new method of murder. "In Unnatural Death, she had invented a murder method that is appropriately dramatic and cunningly ingenious, the injection of an air-bubble with a hypodermic, but not only, in fact, would it require the use of an instrument so large as to be farcical, but Miss Sayers has her bubble put into an artery not a vein. No wonder afterwards she pledged herself 'strictly in future to seeing I never write a book which I know to be careless'." So, the question is, if this was so unpopular with critics then (and with me now) how did it ever become a trope? Sigh... sometimes I will never understand books.

Yet the nail in the coffin for this book is the fact that everything hinges on obscure British law... didn't I say I hate this? Didn't Dorothy get my memo I sent back with The Doctor? So what that the Law of Property Act of 1925 changed certain inheritances? I DON'T CARE! Yes, it's interesting, mildly, that some law passed by the government would spur a murderer to act, but... really, is it really that interesting? No! But then again, apparently I'm just having many issues with Dorothy L. Sayers that will never be resolved. Why have stupid quotes from books that no one has ever or will ever read at the beginning of each chapter? They don't even relate to the subject material at all! Also, writing it as three parts? Was this supposed to be that "epic" of a story that parts were needed? Still, there's a little bit of irony I love. Lord Peter says, "it isn't really difficult to write books. Especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays." The thing is, Dorothy L. Sayers... neither can be said of you. It's a rotten story in rotten English, I guess it is more difficult to write books then you think. Well, I guess that's pretty obvious by now.


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