Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers

Ah, Lord Peter Wimsey, it has been too long since last we met. . . in the pages of book. Let me count the ways that I love thee, O masterful creation of Dorothy Sayers.

I love how Sayers manages to give her readers an education, in this case, by including details of rare Dante documents or folios, which Lord Peter collects. Even more interesting is that this was not yet one of her areas of academic expertise, since she didn't learn Italian and translate Dante's Divine Comedy until twenty years later (published in three volumes: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Sayers broad classical education, however, is evident in more than references to Dante. Lord Peter quotes poetry and other bits of literature quite naturally throughout his dialogues and even his monologues when thinking out loud. Perhaps after teaching my children along classical lines, I'll be able to recognize and understand more of the literary references that permeate these novels.

I love that Sayers' characters have depth, and even in this first Lord Peter mystery, we learn a lot about his nature and idiosyncrasies, including such humorous touches as his very dry British humor and the more serious lingering effects of World War I upon his health and disposition. Solving crimes is a distraction from the brutal memories of war, but he still wrestles with the fact that once he has found out who-dun-it, the murderer will pay for his crime with his life. He's tempted at times to leave well enough alone, but whether for the mental exercise and triumph or for a sense of justice he perseveres.

I began my acquaintance with Lord Peter in the middle of the series with Strong Poison when Harriet Vane makes her appearance. Although I still have eight novels and the collection of short stories to read (so I can't be certain of whether it's mentioned elsewhere) I find it very intriguing that we see this very personal side of Peter - of how he struggles with the fact that his sleuthing will not only bring justice, but death to the criminal - in the first and last novels, Whose Body? and Busman's Honeymoon. That's a nice bit of chiastic structure to bookend the series.

Sayers also introduces us to other important characters who reappear in later books. There's the inimitable Bunter, the epitome of an English butler in all matters of propriety and service, as well as assistant and sounding board for detective matters. Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess also plays a more prominent role in this novel than most of the others I've read, giving Lord Peter the tip about the murder and following the case with more interest than his brother the Duke thinks proper. The family dynamics here seem realistic, or at least they are stereotypical of how Americans envision nobility, which makes it all the more humorous.

I love British humor, probably because I always take things so seriously, and Lord Peter manages to be funny while at the same time being dead serious. But while there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor, Sayers also deals with serious subjects such as psychology and morality, or the question of whether morals are universal or merely patterns infused upon one's brain. Without preaching or even drawing explicit conclusions, it is clear that Lord Peter Wimsey has a solid foundation for morality, at least when it comes to "thou shalt not kill." And that is another reason I love Dorothy Sayers mysteries: they were written before postmodernism killed all attempts at absolutes, and quite frankly, I find that very refreshing.

[Edited to add] I forgot one little thing that I didn't like in this book: Lord Peter and a few of the other characters were dropping their "g's" all over the place. I don't remember this bit of vernacular in the later novels, and it doesn't really seem fitting for an English gentleman, educated at Oxford and all. I'm not quite sure what Sayers was trying to accomplish with that, and I hope it doesn't last long.


Carrie said...

Man, it has been forever since I've read this book and I had forgotten so much about it! You make me want to reread it!

Great review!

Judylynn said...

I've never read Sayers' books. Maybe it's about time I did. Thanks for the review.

I'm adding you to my blogroll!

Anonymous said...

The only Sayers book I've read is 'Have His Carcase.' I really liked it. And I love 'The Lost Tools of Learning.' (Of course. :-)

Thanks for a great review that makes me want to read more books in this series.

Amy said...

I've never read anything by Sayers, and I guess I really should (since I'm aiming for a classical education for my children, too).

I love British humor, so I think I'd like these. Thanks for the great review!