There’s a dead body in his bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles. Enter Lord Peter Wimsey, the original gentleman sleuth, who debuted in this 1923 novel. Written by a master of the detective story, this atmospheric tale abounds in the cozy delights of an English murder mystery.
‘Whose Body?’ (written in 1923) is the first in a series known as the Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries. Having never come across this series before, despite my love of detective novels, I was both excited and intrigued to read something which I expected to be a little ‘different’ from the Asa Larsson’s and the Lee Child’s I have previously inhaled and loved, due to the age of the publication date. As a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and all its old fashioned glory, I was curious as to whether Whose Body would ‘grip’ me in the same way, and be able to stand against the thrilling nature of modern thriller novels.
The book began promisingly enough, and of course being the primary novel of an intended series had an important job to do in introducing and explaining the multitude of characters and places mentioned. In the first few chapters we meet Lord Whimsey, his mother the Dowager Duchess and their wide group of friends and acquaintances involved in this particular mystery, who I gather will also be present throughout the series – for example the Police Inspector Sugg, and Whimsey’s right hand man Detective Parker.
We are introduced to the character of Lord Whimsey through a steady drip feed of his traits – for example, his peculiar interest in collecting rare books, the effects his wartime shell shock has on his nervous disposition, his fluency in French and Latin, and his curious strength and speed of body and mind – all which I found amounted to a bundle of characteristics, rather than a ready formed character; a point which rather frustrated me at times; I couldn’t seem to grasp a likeness of Sir Peter until well over half way into the mystery.
I did discover clear intelligence and a sharp sense of wit and energy in the novel, and there is no doubt Sayers is a brilliant mystery writer – however, I felt at times almost as if the story was becoming overworked and bogged down in minutiae, before at the very next chapter haring off a such a pace that was hard to follow; it was extremely stop-and-start at times which became another recurring frustration. However, I think it would be unfair to judge ‘Whose Body?’ too harshly for this, as it is indeed the first detective novel of a series and the first detective novel Sayers ever wrote; thus it is perhaps necessary and expected that it isn’t as polished or perfected as I expect some of her later stories will be. In fact, it is perhaps due to these slight disappointments that I would be interested in reading the rest of the Peter Whimsey series, to see how they smoothen out and evolve. One aspect I did like about this particular story was how the ratio of suspense to comedy to gruesomeness to ingenuity played out; each enjoyed their time at exactly the right place in the plot, and each in exactly the right measure. I found some of the dialogue quite difficult to follow at times, simply due to the differences in words and grammar structure between the 1920’s and now, but nothing bad enough to put me off reading.
I felt ‘Whose Body?’ enjoyed a slightly satirical air as well as being a detective novel, and often wondered whether the very genre was itself being parodied. The characters certainly illustrate well known caricatures, with Lord Whimsey and his friends often displaying the selfsame qualities shown by Wodehouse’s upper class twits – frivolity, eccentricity, and over egoistical to name but a few. Despite this, most characters are likeable, if not interesting, and the anticipated murderer deliciously mad and macabre. I did guess who the culprit was, not through any easiness of clue but because I saw no other reason for that specific character to be introduced; although I’m not sure that wasn’t entirely down to my heightened sense of engagement with detective plots, due to reading and watching so much of them!
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Sayers’ mystery, and was pleased to discover a new detective series to add to my ever growing repertoire. I especially loved the references to Sherlock Holmes within the novel itself, both in the character of Detective Parker – a Watson to Whimsey’s Holmes – and in Sayers’ own mentions of the Baker Street consultant through the dialogue of Whimsey, who reveals himself to be a great fan of Conan Doyle’s tales. All in all, therefore, not one of my favourite detective novels, but with further reading Sayers may well turn out to make my list of favoured detective authors.