Sunday, April 8, 2018
WHOSE BODY? by Dorothy L. Sayers
Lord Peter hasn't aged well...many modern readers find him annoying. And, I have to say, he kind of is. In the 20s we had a rash of aristocratic detectives, like Wimsey and Philo Vance, who would adjust their monocles and say a problem was "quite vexin'" and all that. It probably seemed terribly sophisticated and up-market at the time, but now seems cheap.
Still, Sayers had her strengths, and while Lord Peter is grating at times, there's enough here to draw a reader.
Lord Peter Wimsey gets a call one morning; a friend of his mother has a rather bizarre problem, in that there's a body in his bathtub, wearing nothing but a pince-nez. Peter joins with a policeman friend to look in on the situation....at first, they think the body is that of missing financier Sir Reuben Levy, as it really looks like him...but then closer examination reveals that the body is that of a poor man with bad teeth, not that of a wealthy upper-class gentleman. (A deleted bit of dialogue has Lord Peter glancing at the nude body and saying at once that it couldn't be Levy, as the man was clearly not Jewish...at the time, a reference to the foreskin's presence was considered too racy.)
Thus follows an investigation all over 1920's London to discover the identity of the corpse, and what really happened to Levy. Lord Peter is quite bright in spots, and has a temporary attack of PTSD (his "shell shock" is mentioned here but I don't recall it popping up later in the series). It's also here that one of Sayers' signature touches comes into play....Lord Peter identifies the killer at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark in the book, and then spends the rest of the novel piecing his case together. No last-second revelations here!
So, despite an annoying central character, it's still a worthwhile read. There's some uncomfortable anti-Semitism here and there, but it's in the mouths of some unlikable people, so I'm willing to put that down to characterization. (In fact, anti-Semitism was one of the motivators for the murder.) Sayers has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past, although at least in this book she doesn't seem to paint all Jews with the same stereotypical brush.
I think I'll try to go through all the Wimsey books, in time. It'll be interesting to revisit them, and read the one or two that I missed so long ago...