Whose Body, Dorothy L Sayers, 1923

whosebodyThat 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.

Cheaters And Their Readers

By 1944 Raymond Chandler had written The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely and the line “She had eyes like strange sins” and he was accordingly at the top of his game when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder” for Atlantic Monthly and sank the sturdiest and most explicit signpost at a major turning point for pulp fiction.

Since then the essay has held its ground as an important and seminal summary of what’s good and bad in fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, at least from the perspective of one of the genre’s recognised greats. It amounts to a declaration of victory for a certain type of rigorous realism and American-style iconoclasm, especially with regards to the insufferably mannered, formulaic and imperious English forbears of detective fiction. Chandler takes on Dorothy L. Sayers and an editorial he describes as an “essay in futility” as representative of the pompous view that detective fiction can never be real fiction.

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

Chandler also takes issue with E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” and condemns Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine and, naturally, Agatha Christie for the lead-handed cop-out that is “Murder On The Orient Express”.

They do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.

And he’s particularly merciless with the progenitor of Winnie The Pooh, AA Milne, for his crime against fiction “The Red House Mystery”. The problem with the Milne Story is that it’s implausible and relies on far too many very unlikely or unnatural or irregular occurrences. Chandler picks the story to pieces, in fact, and the best he can say about it is that it’s “not a deliberate fraud”.

In short, Chandler dislikes a cheat. And this is the meat of the essay for any writer who cares about adding to the modern canon as begun by Hammett and sustained by Chandler and MacDonald (but clearly not Spillane). It needs to be realistic. This doesn’t mean that mad things can’t happen and that character and morality can’t be tested to limits beyond that which most readers will ever see, but it has to be logically consistent and you can never go back and try to fill in a litany of plot-holes with the cheap pitch of coincidence and oversight and the assumption that your readers are lazy or stupid.

That means no deus ex machina, no sending Hastings down to London in chapter three to return at the denouement with evidence of a secret twin or a second will or true likeness of the deceased, no squadrons of policemen too stupid to notice that which the amateur detective picks up on instantly. It means, simply, that your reader has to stand a chance to solve the problem with the evidence presented. You can misdirect your reader, as Hammett does so originally in the Maltese Falcon, or shock him as Chandler does so cynically in the Little Sister, but you can’t lie and you can’t cheat and you can’t deprive the reader of a fighting chance.

You don’t need to like the advice or follow it to be a good writer unless part of your take on that means being a good writer according to the harsh and authoritative definition of Raymond Chandler. Or if you simply agree with the hypothesis that rigour in writing inevitably surfaces as quality then you could certainly choose a worse measure than an obligation to reward your readers for their attention all the way through to the end.