Whose Body? [1923]

As a break from my diet of Spy fiction while I get to grips with the genre for running Night’s Black Agents, I decided to try a Dorothy Sayers novel. She is one of the so-called Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Marjory Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie. Between them, they dominated the Fair Play market in the inter-war period and afterwards. Christie’s emerged as the overall winner in the long-term, but at the time I think Sayers was possibly regarded as the finer novelist. I decided to begin at the beginning, with her first novel, partially because I have recently been re-reading Agatha Christie starting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

While reading Whose Body? it was hard to keep Raymond Chandler’s biting critique out of my mind. I can’t be sure how I’d have found Lord Wimsey without Chandler’s words echoing in my mind, but with that interference I found him almost completely insufferable and that made the novel a little of an endurance trial for me. Evaluating its literary qualities fairly isn’t easy with that prejudice, but to my sensibilities, all of the story elements were oddly weighted, the dialogue was awkward, and the puzzle/mystery was structured in such a way that there was only one viable suspect from early on, who turned out to be guilty. I couldn’t even find the enjoyment in the minor characters that Chandler had. I think it’s worth unpacking the structural faults a little more, because I think that can tell us a little about how detective fictions work as read objects. Obviously, I ruin the ending in my discussion.

The puzzle is this: a dead body is found in someone’s bathtub. The identity of the person is unknown. Simultaneously, a wealthy merchant banker goes missing. Wimsey and another detective each get involved in one half of the doubled case, and intuiting a connection between the two, work together to uncover the killer. This kind of doubled plot is a major innovation in generic terms, because it multiplies the number of possible variables. To solve one crime, you need means, motive and opportunity. To solve two, you need two means, two motives and two opportunities.

Here’s the problem – the sophisticated reader of detective stories knows immediately that this random corpse is a kind of red herring, substituting one body for another. The similarity of the corpses suggests that the two corpses have been swapped – when we establish the identity of the corpse, we know what has been done with the “real” victim, the banker. (BTW, I’ll return to those scare quotes marks in my conclusion.) The reader is thus almost 100% certain that the missing banker is in fact dead, while the detectives proceed on some kind of basis that he could be alive for the half way point. When the reader is ahead of the detective, watching them get to the right conclusion is somewhat tedious. It’s a novel that’s not afraid of tedium – there is a lengthy side-trek to investigate the most obvious red herring I can recall in detective fiction, and several quite lengthy dialogues where the two detectives discuss all the possibilities that the audience knows aren’t correct. Sayers was not afraid of showing the procedural aspects in close detail.

By the time the detectives are convinced that the banker is dead, they have established exactly one character with motive, which again puts the reader ahead of the detectives. Almost the last quarter of the book is given over to the criminal’s lengthy written confession, explaining all the details of the means, motive and opportunity. I have to admit that I didn’t predict all the details of the crime correctly, but it takes a real interest in the details of the crime to care about that. There was nothing striking or surprising in the detailed exposition of the crime – at least, the outlines were clear by the time the detectives caught up with me in knowing whodunit.

The construction of the plot thus requires an odd combination of qualities. It needs someone who is entirely naive with respect to stock features of detective formulations, but who is prepared to try and honestly piece together every little scrap of information in a rigorous way, and therefore be interested in making sure all the dotting and crossing has been done correctly. The use of a doubled crime indicates real promise in the young Sayers, but merely that in this novel.

In “Murder and Manners”, George Grella uses Levy as an example of an outsider being killed. The banker is a Jew, you see, so not a proper member of society. This is discussed by several of the characters in the novel, albeit, a little obliquely. I’d put a slightly different spin on it, perceiving Levy’s fault not as his semitic heritage, but his middle-class origins. He earned his money, rather than inheriting it. The other corpse was provided by a homeless man killed in an accident. All of the middle or working class characters in the novel get mocked by the narrative voice and suffer misfortune over the novel. The upper class characters escape largely unharmed – even to the extent that the widow’s suffering is largely implied rather than shown, and the comments made about the killer are that he’ll be a tremendous loss to science, rather than condemnation. I found the impression of class supremacy fairly overwhelming.

I hate to judge an author by a single work, especially their first, and so I’ll be picking up another of these in the future. Perhaps I’ll go to The Nine Tailors, suggested to Edmund Wilson as her finest work.

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