Book Review: Unnatural Death


Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers (1927)

Warning: for those who have not yet read all the Wimsey books the text of the “Biographical Note” (purportedly written at Sayers request by Wimsey’s uncle) contains spoilers for books published later than this one.

Unnatural Death begins with a scene that situates Wimsey clearly within a particular social milieu. Wimsey is sharing a meal with Charles Parker (Scotland Yard detective and friend) in an upscale restaurant. The difference in class between the two men is established when conversation makes it clear that Parker is neither used to eating snails nor comfortable with the idea. The reader is given further cues to the appropriate social and cultural outlook by the descriptions of the other people in the room:

The fat man on their right was unctuously entertaining two ladies of the chorus; beyond him, two elderly habitués were showing their acquaintance with the fare at the “Au Bon Bourgeois” by consuming a Tripes à la Mode de Caen (which they do very excellently there) and a bottle of Chablis Moutonne 1916; on the other side of the room a provincial and his wife were stupidly clamouring for a cut off the joint with lemonade for the lady and whisky and soda for the gentleman.(14)[1]

The first two descriptions still “work” for the modern reader but the third bears further examination. How does the observer know that the couple is “provincial?” Is it their clothes? Can the listener detect a regional accent in their speech? Surely that is not enough to warrant their dining request to be characterized as “stupid.” Clearly they are unaware of the type of food (or food combinations) that one ordered in an expensive restaurant in Soho. If they had been richly dressed foreigners their confusion might have been considered charming but as “provincials” (read—moderately well-off non-gentry) any lack of prior knowledge of the minutia of local food etiquette will be characterized as stupidity. For the modern reader this is a sudden insight in the pernicious nature of the British class/social system of the time. There was even a set way to be a noncomformist and absent aristocratic relatives anyone who didn’t adhere to a narrow set of behaviours, tastes and interests was judged “not quite the thing” and excluded from much of social life.

Although this story is set almost a decade after the Great War passing comments make it clear how close “the old days” actually were in terms of gender expectations:

A dear old friend of mine used to say that I should have made a very good lawyer,” said Miss Climpson, complacently, “but of course, when I was young, girls didn’t have the education or the opportunities they get nowadays, Mr. Parker. I should have liked a good education, but my dear father didn’t believe in it for women. Very old-fashioned, you young people would think him.”(35)[1]

The reader will also notice casual verbal racism as in this description of the quality of the ham in a sandwich:

Observe the hard texture, the deep brownish tint of the lean; rich fat, yellow as a Chinaman’s cheek; (64)[1]

At one point in the book a rather remarkable letter is penned by the very proper Miss Climpson to Lord Peter (for whom she was sleuthing) about the judgmental and self-consciously proper behaviour of the former housekeeper of the woman Wimsey thinks may have been murdered when a dark-skinned man paid a call on the lady of the house:

In fact, it appears she refused to cook the lunch for the poor black man—(after all, even blacks are God’s creatures and we might all be black OURSELVES if He had not in His infinite kindness seen fit to favour us with white skins!!)—and walked straight out of the house!!!

So that unfortunately she cannot tell us anything further about this remarkable incident! She is certain, however, that the ‘nigger’ had a visiting-card, with the name ‘Rev. H. Dawson’ upon it, and an address in foreign parts. It does seem strange, does it not, but I believe many of these native preachers are called to do splendid work among their own people, and no doubt a MINISTER is entitled to have a visiting-card, even when black!!! (112-113)[1]

The casual and open racism of everyone is pervasive:

“Perhaps the long-toed gentleman was black,” suggested Parker. “Or possibly a Hindu or Parsee of sorts.”

“God bless my soul,” said Sir Charles, horrified, “an English girl in the hands of a black man. How abominable!”

“Well, we’ll hope it isn’t so. Shall we follow the road out or wait for the doctor to arrive?”(199)[1]

The idea of two English girls—the one brutally killed, the other carried off for some end unthinkably sinister, by a black man—aroused all the passion of horror and indignation of which the English temperament is capable.(203)[1]

Two other things stand out to this reader: first, the casual (if somewhat critical) attitude that people had towards a homosocial relationship between two women and second the meager amount of actual detection that Wimsey carries out over the course of the book.

Not everyone approved of the two woman/woman relationsips but this disapproval did not carry the taint of sin:

There was a many gentlemen as would have been glad to hitch up with her, but she was never broke to harness. Like dirt, she treated ’em. Wouldn’t look at ’em, except it might be the grooms and stable-hands in a matter of ’osses. And in the way of business, of course. Well, there is some creatures like that. I ’ad a terrier bitch that way. Great ratter she was. But a business woman—nothin’ else. I tried ’er with all the dogs I could lay ’and to, but it weren’t no good. Bloodshed there was an’ sich a row—you never ’eard. The Lord makes a few on ’em that way to suit ’Is own purposes, I suppose. There ain’t no arguin’ with females.”(122)[1]

It is clear that some characters (including Miss Climpson) see “weaker” member (generally the one who fulfills a domestic role) of these relationships as sometimes lacking in strength of character and prone to school girlish crushes and swoons but even from a woman who takes her religion really seriously there is nary at trace of moral condemnation

The reader who is taken aback at the overt racism and covert acceptance of female homosocial relationships may miss the fact that class is the ultimate weapon of power in this book. The book opens with a scene in which Wimsey demonstrates his class through his culinary choices and, in fact, the story could not have proceeded had not the doctor who shared his story with Wimsey and Parker not recognized Wimsey as “the right sort” and therefore felt comfortable returning to his flat.

For the rest of the story Wimsey does not detect so much as he delegates the grim, boring and tedious aspects of detection to others. Wimsey is interested in the doctor’s story and so he is able to hire people to look up the records, go to the scene of the possible crime, spend hours over tea tables in boarding houses, go door-to-door to canvas neighbourhoods and go through official records. Wimsey is able to go places (if he wishes) with ease because of his wealth and his status. Wimsey boasts at one point that he has a nose for detection. That he is one of those people who has a sense of when a crime was committed. Unfortunately what Sayers seems to have demonstrated in this book is that something more than flair, intelligence, and curiosity is required to solve crimes “the Wimsey way”–status, money and connections.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

[1] Sayers, D. (1964). Unnatural death. New York: Avon.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Unnatural Death

  1. Well, after all, \”status, money and connections\” make everything easier!But it is kind of amazing the way the police let him do whatever he wants in an investigation, although he has no official standing whatsoever. I suppose \”the Duke's son\” is standing enough.Ah yes, Miss Climpson. Doesn't she end up running an all-female detective agency, nominally a typing service, for Lord Peter?? Yes, it lets him hire his detecting done, but at least it's a job for a few intelligent women who'd otherwise being doing straight secretarial work if they were lucky.I've believe you've read a Laura Lippman recently? In some of her later books, she introduces an employee for Tess, a sixty-something woman who becomes an expert on surveillance– because, of course, nobody ever notices older women.(She's said to have broken three insurance-fraud cases in a month, just sitting on a bench and knitting. As I get older, I'm willing to believe that nobody gave her a second look while she was on that bench, but also as I get older, I wonder how she handled what may be delicately referred to as \”the bathroom issue.\”)

  2. I am very fond of the Wimsey books, although I have been growing increasingly uncomfortable at the kind of thing you're pointing out here. There aren't that many incidents of racism, simply because almost everyone in the stories is white, usually English. But the author obviously despises all women who didn't get a university education, or at the very least eschew marriage and take up some Worthwhile Artistic Profession. And she patronises the hell out of any and every working class character except Bunter. It's not the characters in the books doing the patronising, it's definitely the author. Ick.

  3. \”But it is kind of amazing the way the police let him do whatever he wants in an investigation, although he has no official standing whatsoever. I suppose \”the Duke's son\” is standing enough.\”It's a detective novel. That is standing enough. The connections are just an excuse to explain the desired result.– Base Delta Zero

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