Wednesday, May 31, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Dorothy L. Sayers

Title: Whose Body?
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers

Having made my way through the vast majority of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, it's time to move on to another classic sleuth of the genre: Lord Peter Whimsey.  My wife is the primary mystery enthusiast at our house and Dorothy L. Sayers's work is her favorite.  She first introduced me to the Whimsey books in a family book swap several years ago.  I have now gone back to the beginning.  Whose Body? is the first book, published in 1923.  

Lord Peter Whimsey sits at a midway point between Holmes and Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves stories.  With this first offering, he's definitely more towards the goofy Bertie end of that spectrum than I remember him being later on.  Fortunately, Peter has a talent for solving mysteries, a hobby he indulges in to alleviate boredom more than any sense of justice.  Like Bertie, he's basically a decent guy.

An unidentified corpse is discovered in the bathtub of a London home.  The same evening, a prominent financier, Sir Reuben Levy, went missing?  Are they one and the same?  While that's the initial assumption, Parker (Whimsey's Scotland Yard detective buddy) quickly susses out they can't be.  Levy was a pious Jew.  The naked man in the tub clearly wasn't.  This coy reference to circumcision was too risqué for Sayers's 1923 publishers and they made her change her original language so as to be less obvious.

Whimsey and Parker are initially working the two cases separately but eventually find the connection together.  They get an assist from Bunter, Whimsey's Jeeves-equivalent butler.  Another memorable character introduced in this first book is Peter's mother, the Duchess of Denver.  Clever, charming and meddlesome, I find her reminiscent of Mrs. Higgins from the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, first staged in 1913 (not adapted for the musical My Fair Lady until 1956).

A bit of cultural learning for me: a coroner's inquest.  I know, of course, that a coroner's job is to determine cause of death.  I did not previously realize that a coroner can call for a jury hearing on the matter.  Such an inquest is held in the book.  Is this a peculiarly British practice?  In fact, no.  They can be held in the United States, too, though not in every state.  There's an inquest in the movie Vertigo which I've seen several times.  I guess I always assumed it was a criminal trial.

There are many more Whimsey books on our shelves so I intend to explore this world again soon.


  1. I've never read any of Sayer, but then I haven't read many mysteries.

    1. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Whimsey is better than Holmes. The stories are goofier. Sayers is a wittier writer. That's fun.