I picked up Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers because I’ve wanted to read something by her for a long while. Adding a mystery by her to my Classics Club list and posts like this at Golden Grasses provided the motivation I needed to actually check something out from the library and read it. I’m only familiar with Sayers through my reading about the classical model of education and her essay (speech?) “The Lost Tools of Learning.” I’m glad that I can get to know her a bit through her novels instead of only reading education treatises. Instead of discussing the plot of Whose Body? I’m going to write my observations about reading in a genre I’m not accustomed to and share a few quotes I particularly like. To give anything at all away about the plot would amount to spoilers, and really, is it necessary to know anything about the plot of a murder mystery? I think you either like them or you don’t.
I haven’t read a murder mystery since the little time I spent with Agatha Christie and her And Then There Were None when I taught it for an English class or two back when I taught at the community college. In general I avoid anything that might scare me at all, and because I’ve always avoided scary stories or movies, I’m particularly sensitive to them. Something about a murder mystery solved by a member of the British aristocracy didn’t sound too bad to me, and I was right: this one caused me no distress or disturbance. However, all of my reading these days is distracted reading; I read in little pockets of time here and there throughout my day. It is highly unusual for me to read for more than twenty minutes at a time. Because of this, I feel like I really didn’t completely get the plot—that maybe I should’ve caught more of the clues that enable Lord Peter Wimsey to unravel the mystery. I enjoyed the first two-thirds the book, but I wouldn’t really say I was hooked. Sayers definitely has a pleasing style which I real enjoy, but the story itself really hadn’t completely captured me. However, when the slow unraveling of the mystery began in earnest, I was hooked—I needed to know whose body it was in the bathtub. I regretted that I hadn’t paid closer attention to the details or read larger chunks of the book at a time. Reading books like this that are so plot and detail dependent is good for me—I definitely need to work on my concentration and attention span, though I’m not sure that this is the best season in my life for that. I think the real point at which I changed from being mildly amused to really, truly enjoying the story is when Lord Peter began making what amounts to social commentary, couched in a wonderful, step-by-step description of how to solve a crime. This is the beginning of it:
“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas. Most people don’t associate anythin’–their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’ a lot of noise and goin’ nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ’em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?”
And later, the point at which Lord Peter does string his peas on a necklace, so to speak, concerning the case at hand:
And then it happened–the thing he had been half-unconsciously expecting. It happened suddenly, surely, as unmistakbly, as sunrise. He remembered–not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything–the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space. He no longer needed to reason about it, or even to think about it. He knew it.
Isn’t that a perfect picture of the rhetoric stage? I love it!
The star of the story is, of course, Lord Peter Wimsey, and I really, really like him. Reading this reminded me of the Jeeves and Wooster stories I read earlier in the year (only without the humor—ha!), and I have to say that I like Lord Peter better than Wooster, though the feelings I have for them are similar. (What does this say about me? Maybe that I need to work on my sense of humor as much as my concentration. . . ) In Lord Peter, Sayers has created a very likeable aristocrat. He is obviously very intelligent, but I find him to be self-deprecating, a characteristic I almost never fail to like. The fact that he is a collector of old books only serves to endear him to me even more. I will definitely read more Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in the future. Alice has recommended the three Lord Peter Wimsey books in which Harriet Vane also appears, so I think my next Lord Peter book will be Strong Poison. I’m really glad I read Whose Body? (Harper Collins, 1923)
**A little funny associated with this book: Louise caught the title of this story fairly early and would ask me periodically, “Whose body?” It got to be a joke to me, especially because I still didn’t know.