Cover of Whose Body?

Whose Body?
Dorothy L. Sayers
191 pages
published in 1923

Back in 2001 when I started this booklog I'd just discovered Dorothy L. Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, which explains the high porportion of them amongst the crime fiction I read in 2002/02. At the time I read whatever one I could get my hands on, without regards to publication order, which led to some unfortunate accidents, like reading Have his Carcass before Strong Poison. Once I'd finished the series I was a bit sated, which explains why I hadn't read another Lord Peter novel in over four years. But when I was looking for a light, short detective novel to read in bed one dreary weekend, my eye fell on Whose Body? and I thought it high time to reread it.

Whose Body? is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, originally published in 1923. We first meet Lord Peter in the back of a cab, on his way to a rare books action, when he realises he left his catalogue at home. One damn and a annoyed taxi driver later, he's back just in time to hear his man Bunter answer the phone. Luckily he come home when he did, because it's his mother, the Dowager Duchess, who asks him to help with a spot of bother for one her acquaintances, Tipps, who just found a body in his bathtub - a stark naked body, apart from a pair of eyeglasses.

Because Tipps lives near one of the great London teaching hospitals, at first it's assumed that it might be a student prank of some sort, but no corpses have gone missing from the hospital. The body in question looks to be of a middle aged, Jewish man and in what might be a sinister coincidence, or something more, the famed Jewish financier Sir Reuben Levy has disappeared from his own bedroom and has been seen in the neighbourhood as well. What, if any, is the connection between Levy and the corpse? Wimsey quickly establishes it's not him, but was the police made to think it was him?

As the first Wimsey book, Whose Body? does have some of the uncertainness of many series starting books, where the writer hasn't worked out the hero's demeanour or the interactions between the cast or the tone of the series quite yet. Here it's Wimsey's character that hasn't quite filled out yet. Lord Peter is supposed to look the perfect upperclass twit, brainless and with a "long aimiable face" that looked like "it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from gorgonzola", but with a sharp and sensitive intelligence under the slightly foolish, prattling exterior. Sayers portrays Wimsey's surface personality well, but his underlying sensitivity is less well shown. At the end of the book he undergoes a nervous breakdown, a response to what he went through during the Great War and it all seems a bit tacked on, a bit too serious for what was until then a fairly light detective story.

Apart from that, much of the entourage of the series has already arrived here, set in their respective roles: Inspector Parker, Wimsey's friend at Scotland Yard, his man, Bunter, cook, butler and crime photographer, as well his mother, the Dowager Duchess and Freddy Arbuthnot, a sort of Bertie Wooster type unless he's talking about financial matters.

This is certainly the slightest of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, still with a certain hesitation Dorothy Sayers would lose in the later books, but it's an entertaining enough read in any case.

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Webpage created 15-06-2008, last updated 20-07-2008.