Whose Body?

Cover of Whose Body?.

I read and re-read a lot of Dorothy L. Sayers in German when I was a kid, around 10. I loved those books to bits, so I started wondering if they were as good as I remembered. I started my re-read in the beginning, with Whose Body?, and it turns out: yes. The books are as good as I remembered, or even better, now that I get to read them in English and have an Internet at my fingertips to look up all the more and less obscure literary allusions – which there are many of. The writing style is charming, and has a very distinctive voice of its own, and lends very realistic, nearly audible voices to each and every character on cast.

Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, and this is one of them. Lord Peter is the younger brother of the Duke of Denver, and, having returned from WW1, he spends his time collecting first editions of rare books and solving mysteries. He does so with a charming, distracted air, pretending to be a babbling aristocratic idiot much of the time, which is more enjoyable than it has any right to be. He’s followed around by his man/butler/ex-sergeant Bunter, who is smooth, clever, polite, a tremendous help, and will also stop Lord Peter from wearing unacceptable things – and takes care of him when the Shell Shock (PTSD) gets too much. Both of them are gems, as is Lord Peter’s police inspector friend Charles Parker, a devout Christian who is into critical theology in his free time. This gives the book a good chance to look at class privilege and separation, which I’m happy to report it does.

The best character though is the Dowager Duchess, Lord Peter’s mother. She can ramble for pages, just like him, in a delightfully distracted manner – but she’s even sharper than her son, with the unfortunate habit of reading mystery books and knowing the solution by page 12 (or 22, if it’s a good author). She habitually provides relevant clues in her distracted manner, and is even more sarcastic than Lord Peter.

The mystery itself is somewhat besides the point. I’m not a huge reader of mysteries, so I won’t even attempt to judge it. I enjoyed that the reader is kept up to date, and left to draw obvious solutions that won’t be spelled out. The solution mirrors Sayers’ ethical values without being obnoxious about it, which is a nice change from other Christian writers at the time (C.S. Lewis, I’m looking at you!). The victim was Jewish, which leaves space for a lot of anti-semitic commentary – which is always presented as saying something about the people commenting, and/or about society, not as spreading anti-semitic sentiment. Uncomfortable, but necessary.

I think the most interesting part is how well-drawn the characters are, and how charming the sharp, play-acting, always-in-motion Lord Peter appears. He is very much Miles Vorkosigan, and I was happy to see that he is widely cited as an influence on Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s character writing, so please take this as an enthusiastic endorsement.


“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.” “Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.” “Very, Bunter. Your choice of words is unerring. I wish Eton and Balliol had done as much for me.”

“I love trifling circumstances,” said Lord Peter, with childish delight; “so many men have been hanged by trifling circumstances.”

“You’re very elliptical, dear,” said the Duchess, mildly.

“Well, it’s no good jumping at conclusions.” “Jump? You don’t even crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion. I believe if you caught the cat with her head in the cream-jug you’d say it was conceivable that the jug was empty when she got there.” “Well, it would be conceivable, wouldn’t it?” “Curse you,” said Lord Peter.

There’s nothing you can’t prove if your outlook is only sufficiently limited.

He was a lord, to begin with, and his clothes were a kind of rebuke to the world at large.