Unnatural Death (1927) by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is the first of my two regular monthly re-reads, but I have to be honest this is one I enjoyed a little less this time around. But more on that anon…

A chance meeting and an overheard conversation in a restaurant lead to Lord Peter Wimsey and DI Charles Parker, listening to Dr Carr’s woes. He ended up having to sell his practice, due to his zealousness in trying to determine the cause of death of terminally ill cancer patient. His decision to do a post-mortem concludes in a dead end, with their being no more to say than death by heart failure. Having made such a fuss, the local populace turns against him, finding his behaviour callous in the inferences it suggests. Yet Carr is sure that something is not quite right and of course all mystery readers’ ears are pricked when they learn of the patient’s house setup: the young niece, with a nursing background and likely candidate for her aunt’s money; two maids suspiciously dismissed, as well as a nurse; fears of poisoning; the patient’s reluctance to make a will and the niece’s conviction that her aunt hasn’t got long to live. Whilst Carr does not want to explore the past further, Lord Peter Wimsey is quite the opposite… But can he solve the murder which is ‘without discernible means, or motives or clue’?

Overall Thoughts

I think Sayers sets up an interesting problem. The immediate discussion between Parker and Wimsey to a real-life case involving Edward Pritchard and his killings in 1865, make a good entry point for Carr to jump into.

I wonder whether we could describe this book as a variant of the inverted mystery. I don’t feel the who is ever much in question and the focus of the tale is more strongly placed upon the how and why of the crime. Given the lack of obvious murder method, Sayers does make a rod for her own back, as without a clear weapon and demonstrable symptoms/consequences of it having been used on someone, it is much harder to create clues that point to the means of death. I think others would agree that this is a weak point of the book, as the way Wimsey arrives at the solution to the ‘how’ of the crime, does require a bit of a lightning bolt moment. Equally the solution itself doesn’t work; though this is a criticism Sayers took on board. The vulnerability of this solution is also implied by the fact the case doesn’t see a trial.

Nevertheless, Sayers does manage to make this an active case, having Wimsey very successfully stir everything and everyone up. He adopts Holmesian tactics such as the placing of newspaper advertisements and one of his best ideas is to get Miss Climpson to do some extended undercover work. In the story he says that ‘like the people in the Psalms, I lay traps; I catch men. I shall let the alleged criminal convict herself.’ Yet I think the author makes a convincing job of this element, setting Wimsey against a highly competent adversary. Furthermore, whilst the cluing around the how of case is somewhat lacking, Sayers does provide better clues for other aspects of the case, with plenty for the Wimsey and his colleagues to pick apart and infer from. The ham clue is particularly delightful.

I had forgotten how funny this book could be and I think these comedic moments made this revisit worthwhile. Lord Peter Wimsey is still leaning on the aristocratic buffoon mask at this stage in his career, which I know can irk some readers, but I did find it amusing when he uses such a manner to introduce himself to Nurse Philliter, who soon ‘decided that she was to be asked to go to a mental case and that the patient had come to fetch her in person.’ Bunter’s role in this book is a minor one, yet as always, he is truly unflappable even when taxed with bizarre fashion questions: ‘What is the proper suit to put on, Bunter, when one is an expectant father?’

Sayers equally takes a more humorous approach to introducing Miss Climpson, one of Wimsey’s sleuthing assistants, into the book. At this point Parker has never heard of Climpson, nor knows what she does for Wimsey. Yet Wimsey is quite happy for a misunderstanding to formulate when he invites Parker to visit a female friend of his, pointing out how ‘she’s quite comfortably fixed in a little flat in Pimlico’ and how ‘the arrangement’s only been going a few month […] but [that] it really seems to be working out quite satisfactorily.’

However, Sayers does not intend for Miss Climpson to be a figure of fun and Wimsey does give her quite the write up:

‘Miss Climpson is a manifestation of the wasteful way in which this country is run […] Thousands of old maids, simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and communities and hostels and posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community, while ratepayers’ money is spent on getting work for which these women are providentially fitted, inefficiently carried out by ill-equipped policemen like you […] She is my ears and tongue […] and especially my nose. She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush. She is the angel that rushes in where fools get a clump on the head. She can smell a rat in the dark. In fact, she is the cat’s whiskers.’

And this reader would definitely agree with Wimsey’s final comment, as Miss Climpson is a brilliant character and I think she might even have appeared before Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, (correct me if I am wrong). She makes a very good job of her sleuthing efforts and is very adept at directing people onto certain topics. I like how Sayers doesn’t make her a perfect superwoman figure, nor does she make her irritatingly frail and incompetent.

I think this book is rather a mixed bag. There are underlying weaknesses which mar its overall effect, pacing being one of these difficulties and I would go as far as saying that Sayers perhaps overreaches herself in this tale. Yet at the same time there is this great opening setup of the puzzle and all those wonderful scenes with Miss Climpson and the turns of phrase that Sayers treats us to. So, it has been hard to rate this one. A lot of umming and ahing has ensued. Maybe it would be best to not recommend this title to readers new to the author, but for those who have a few titles under their belt. What do you think?

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver): In the Medical Field

Calendar of Crime: June (5) Other June Holiday (St John’s Eve)

See also: Sergio and Desperate Reader have also reviewed this title. The Shedunnit podcast also talks about this book in its tenth episode on Nurse Daniels.

7 comments

  1. This is the next Sayers I am due to read which I have been putting off, in part because my memory of it was not particularly favorable. I will have to look at it through the lens of whether we can see it as an inverted story when I do – a little added motivation to finally tackle this one!

    Liked by 1 person

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