by Dorothy Sayers
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #1
Publication Date: April 9, 1923
In the debut mystery in Dorothy L. Sayers’s acclaimed Lord Peter Wimsey series, the case of a dead bather draws Lord Peter into the first of many puzzling mysteries.
Lord Peter Wimsey spends his days tracking down rare books, and his nights hunting killers. Though the Great War has left his nerves frayed with shellshock, Wimsey continues to be London’s greatest sleuth—and he’s about to encounter his oddest case yet.
A strange corpse has appeared in a suburban architect’s bathroom, stark naked save for an incongruous pince-nez. When Wimsey arrives on the scene, he is confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime puzzle. The police suspect that the bathtub’s owner is the murderer, but Wimsey’s investigation quickly reveals that the case is much stranger than anyone could have predicted.
Published in 1923, during detective fiction’s golden age, Whose Body? introduced a character and a series that would make Dorothy L. Sayers famous. To this day, Lord Peter remains one of his genre’s most beloved and brilliant characters.
Whose Body is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, written by Dorothy Sayers. Mrs. Sayers wrote ten Lord Peter novels, as well as short stories featuring her gentleman-detective between 1923 and 1937. Lord Peter ages in real-time with her stories, and they are contemporary mysteries set during the year in which they are written.
“Why can’t you marry and settle down and live quietly, doin’ something useful?” said the Duke, unappeased.
“Because that was a wash-out as you perfectly well know,” said Peter; “besides,” he added cheerfully, “I’m bein’ no end useful. You may come to want me yourself, you never know. When anybody comes blackmailin’ you, Gerald, or your first deserted wife turns up unexpectedly from the West Indies, you’ll realize the pull of havin’ a private detective in the family. ‘Delicate private business arranged with tact and discretion. Investigations undertaken. Divorce evidence a specialty. Every guarantee!”
In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh took up Mrs. Sayers’ mantle and completed her unfinished last Lord Peter novel, called Thrones and Dominations. She has since published three more Lord Peter books, including The Attenbury Emeralds, which actually reaches back to 1921 and tells the story of Peter Wimsey’s first foray into detecting. The Attenbury Emeralds case is mentioned in Whose Body, but the story is not fully (or even partially) told.
I bought all of the original novels over the Christmas holidays this year, as they were all on sale. All of the Open Road editions of the Peter Wimsey books have similar covers, all featuring Peter’s monocle as part of the image. I find the covers both clever and appealing.
The mystery in Whose Body is quite grim, actually, although the treatment of it is lighthearted (as is so often the case with “Golden Age” mysteries). It is a classic upper crust mystery, although the murderer is quite frankly a sociopath who conveniently commits suicide at the end – this is another common feature of Golden Age mysteries. The murders often dispose of themselves to avoid the sticky and lower-class legal process that will result from their being caught-out by our amateur sleuth.
There is light satire of the British pre-WWII social conventions and the relationship between Lord Peter (aristocrat) and his valet (Bunter). In Whose Body, Lord Peter has a recurrence of “shell shock” from his experiences during WWI, and is cared for Bunter, who is obviously very close to Lord Peter. As a random aside, their relationship rather reminds me of the relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings, which was taken from Tolkien’s observations of the relationship between batman and officer in WWI. One of the great strengths of this book is the touching, affectionate and convincing relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.
Also, Bunter gets some of the best lines:
“Yes, Mr. Graves, it’s a hard life, valeting by day and developing by night—morning tea at any time from 6.30 to 11, and criminal investigation at all hours.”
The next book in the series is Clouds of Witness.