Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review - Dorothy L. Sayers's Whose Body?

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Book 1) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by: Harper Torch
Publication Date: 1923
Format: Paperback, 212 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lord Peter Wimsey and his manservant Bunter are very lucky in their lifestyle, in that they get to indulge their passions. For Lord Peter, this is rare Folios and amateur sleuthing, for Bunter, this is photography, which can be very helpful in amateur sleuthing. When Lord Peter hears about a body mysteriously appearing in the bathroom of the architect Thipps, his curiosity is peeked. He is even willing to miss a rare book auction to get there before the police cordon makes it impossible. Lord Peter sees many things amiss, but can't quite put his finger on anything in particular, aside from the fact that the police have got it all wrong.

While at the same time, Inspector Parker, a friend of Lord Peter's, is investigating the disappearance of Sir Reuben Levy. At first the cops jump to the conclusion that the body in the tub must be a shorn Levy... but aside from their both being Jewish and of a similar appearance, this is obviously not the case. Yet... could the two be somehow connected. Inspector Parker with Lord Peter and Bunter are determined to get to the bottom of this, even if it puts them in personal peril. At least if they have to hole up at Lord Peter's there is plenty to read and drink.

Please don't attack me for not liking this book. Send me no death threats or piercing glances. No flamethrowers in the darkness to wake me from a deep sleep. I know it verges on sacrilege to say I didn't like this book, but... I just didn't like this book. I will use as my "get out of jail free" card the fact that many people have told me to just skip to Strong Poison and the arrival of Harriet Vane or to just skip ahead to Gaudy Night, which is the best by far. So, my thought is, that what they're really saying, instead of emphasising the awesomeness of Harriet Vane, they're pointing out the flaws in the earlier books and are trying to get me to skip ahead so I won't abandon Lord Peter before he meets his match. That's how I'm justifying it, ok?

The overwhelming problem with Whose Body is that Dorothy L. Sayers can't write. I mean, literally, this book verged on the incomprehensible. Shall I sweep this under the rug as the foibles of a first time writer? Or shall I ripe her to shreds? Shreds it is. Whose Body almost reads like some bizarre exercise to get as many styles of writing into one book. First, there's the standard third-person narration, which isn't well executed, but, at least it's expected. Then she throws in some straight up back and forth dialogue, which, I'm cool with, Lisa Lutz does it all the time, so, that's fine, and also, for the 1920s, pretty novel. Sayers occasionally verges into epistolary form, which again, I'm down with that. Her haphazard and incomprehensible annotations are more then a little odd. I really don't know why she does them, they don't further the plot or even make sense.

Where the book really started to fall apart is when she randomly, I mean seriously, why did she just do this for a few random pages, went into second-person narration. Second-person narration never really works for me, and here it just comes out of left field. Was I supposed to feel like I was there at the graveside exhumation? Because the narrative shift just made me think I was reading some bizarre experiment by a bad writer and instantly pulled me out of the book. Finally, the meta. While meta is a concept that has taken on in recent years with it's self referential attitude, it's not really a new thing. Agatha Christie would sometimes have Poirot joke about how "real life" isn't like a "detective story" and the reader would laugh thinking, little did Poirot know, he's fictional. Sayers takes this further and is having Lord Peter always joke about detective stories and Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Ok, cute a few times, but you've beat it to death. Stop. Just stop. Nothing you can do, even making me laugh (which I didn't), redeems the slipshod writing and amateurish style.

So how about the characters? They are so flat and similar that I couldn't tell who was speaking till a "what" tagged onto the end of a sentence made me go, oh, Lord Peter must have been talking. Peter and Parker, their mode of speaking and the habit of Sayers to not qualify the speaker makes Whose Body a muddled mess. Then there's the fact that Lord Peter and Bunter are really just bad shades of Jeeves and Wooster with crime solving inclinations. Which wasn't helped by my recently watching the new show Blandings (horrid first episode, gets radically better), because I kept picturing Jack Farthing as The Hon. Frederick Threepwood with his bland acting, over the top facial expressions and fly away hair as Lord Peter. Why you might say? Because Freddie has the "what" disease, that seems to plague the upper crust in order to get a laugh. While Wodehouse did this humorously, as I've said, I think Sayers just did it, not as a character trait, but as an afterthought... some way to make Peter not Parker. The one aspect of Lord Peter that did interest me was his PTSD. I've railed against this before in literature, but it's interesting to see it in literature of the time, before it was diagnosed to death and had "stereotypical symptoms." This shell shock could prove to be interesting.

Now, I will say, one thing that I did find interesting. Yes, there really was only one, because I figured out the killer damn early and was offended by the antisemitism. There are many groan worthy lines, but one was so obviously, "Look Here! KILLER!" that it made me audibly groan. Ok, enough of the being mean, here's what I liked. I liked that Lord Peter is so obviously not Poirot. That needs some explanation. So, with The Murder on the Links, Poirot is always railing against the modern methods, the fingerprints and footprints and what have you, while Lord Peter and Bunter are openly embracing them. In fact, Bunter is often updating to the latest gadgets just because he can. While endlessly reading about forensics might get boring after awhile, I find it interesting that Sayers, writing at the same time as Christie, decided to take such a radically different approach. Good on you Sayers, but I'm still hugely grateful this wasn't chosen as my bookclub's selection, I don't think they would have ever forgiven me for how bad it is.


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