That which I like about Dorothy L Sayers is abundant in Whose Body and so I find myself wishing it were possible to know what it would have been like were it not the first Lord Peter Wimsey book and/or written ten years later, say about the time that she wrote Murder Must Advertise.
Sayers’ strong suit was never plotting. There are lively debates in the mystery community over which of her stories is the most clumsily over-wrought (with The Five Red Herrings typically coming first or a very close second) but even at her best she wasn’t a patch on Christie at her worst. And for me, usually, that doesn’t matter. The lyrical, astute social commentary (in particular the evisceration of the advertising industry which Sayers knew so well) of Murder Must Advertise doesn’t just compensate for the baldly absurd plot device of Wimsey pretending to be his own doppleganger and a supernaturally acrobatic harlequin, it paints over it entirely. It was days after finishing Murder Must Advertise before I realised that it was, in fact, silly.
Whose Body is poorly plotted in a much more mundane fashion. It’s not so much a whodunnit as a how and, more obtusely, whydunnit. It’s not unoriginal — the story’s comprised of eccentric characters and locations and situations (such as a body in a bathtub, wearing only someone else’s pince-nez).
But at about the two-thirds point Wimsey knows all and the reader knows a lot — certainly the killer has been obvious for a while and the rest rather falls into place from there, but that only means that Whose Body doesn’t fit the standard cosy convention of a dénouement consisting of a gallery of suspects and a dramatic reveal as close to the end of the book as possible. The resolution, in fact, is much closer to Holmes than it is to Poirot, in that the sleuth figures it all out in a very abstract and artistic manner rather than delivering the guilty party into the hands of a grateful Inspector Lestrade, complete with concrete evidence. It feels as though the ending is far too long in coming and when it does it falls a little flat. There really were no other viable suspects and the motive turned out to be a combination of exactly what we all thought it would be and nonsense.
Sayers achieves the requisite limited cast of suspects and witnesses by simply creating a London (and Salisbury) populated by a tiny circle of people who mostly know one another. The result is a staginess that left me disengaged, unable to position the players and grasp the physics of much of what happened.
Normally, I’d be okay with all that, because I wouldn’t have noticed it distracted, as I would have been, by Wimsey’s clever banter or Sayers’ deft narrative. But Whose Body was an early effort, and Sayers and Wimsey had yet to fully find their voices. Additionally, this particular book is the result of an unfortunate experiment with phonetic spellings, and I soon found myself translating “examinin’” and “fr’instance” “p’r’aps” into English in real time, like a UN interpreter, and that slowed me down enough to notice other cracks.
Of course, the most serious failing of Whose Body is simply that it compares poorly to the rest of the canon (maybe not The Five Red Herrings). It’s still a re-readable resource of slick, poetic, rhythmic dialogue and prose that sets a flittering pace. The narrative voice has Lord Peter Wimsey’s rudimentary personality and it charms and sets the tone for great things to come.
This is the bit where I compare my review to that which I’m currently working on. In spite of the obvious comparisons, I don’t (consciously) put much of Lord Peter Wimsey into my own Anty Boisjoly. However, I do take rather a lot of inspiration from Sayers, particularly the manner in which she infuses her narrative with the personality of her main character, and vice-versa.