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Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Unnatural Death" by Dorothy L. Sayers

Ah, nothing like a little Sayers mystery when one needs something clever but light to read. She is one of my favorite mystery novelists. I will admit that I had something of a crush on Lord Peter Wimsey, in the days before I got married. Now I think I would find him somewhat intolerable as a real-life companion. As a character in a book, though, he's great fun.

"Unnatural Death" strikes me as a bit unusual for a murder mystery, in that the culprit is correctly suspected from nearly the beginning of the book, even in the absence of any clear motive. The means of death, however, remain a mystery until near the end.

I was happy to catch a literary allusion this time which completely escaped me the first time I read this book, lo, these many years ago: Lord Peter quotes a line from "The Walrus and the Carpenter." "'I weep for you,' the Walrus said: 'I deeply sympathize.'" I suppose that's what one gets after years of reading aloud to one's children.

Sayers's writing is delightful. "She was (she did not attempt to hide it from herself) precisely the type and build of person one associates with the collection of subscriptions." As if those who solicit contributions to charity ran true to a specific physical type! And we admire Miss Climpson's modesty in not attempting to hide it from herself.

I take delight, too, in Miss Climpson's epistolary style, with all its underlinings and exclamation points. Her letters serve to illustrate her character.

"Mrs. Cobling turned out to be a delightful old lady, exactly like a dried up pippin..."

"Oh, gods of the wine-flask and the board, how long? how long?--it is a ham sandwich, Goth, but not an ordinary one. Never did it see Lyons' kitchen, or the counter of the multiple store, or the delicatessen shop in the back street. The pig that was sacrificed to make this dainty tidbit fattened in no dull style, never knew the daily ration of pig-wash or the not unmixed rapture of the domestic garbage-pail. Observe the hard texture, the deep brownish tint of the lean, the rich fat, yellow as a Chinaman's cheek; the dark spot where the black treacle cure has soaked in, to make a dish fit to lure Zeus from Olympus. And tell me, man of no discrimination and worthy to be fed on boiled cod all the year round, tell me how it comes that your little waitress and her railway clerk come down to Epping Forest to regale themselves on sandwiches made from coal-black, treacle-cured Bradenham ham, which long ago ran as a young wild boar about the woodlands, till death translated it to an incorruptible and more glorious body?"

I could go on, but you'd do better to pick up a Sayers book and read it for yourself.


  1. I read an essay once about how Sayers believed mystery writers must play fair with readers by having all the clues in plain sight. This is why Unnatural Death includes an incident involving a broken-down motorcycle which adds nothing to the plot, but gives a hint suggesting the murder method to the astute reader. I was not that astute.
    I also like reading Sayers mysteries as a treat when I want something light. She is practically the only mystery writer I read, although I have read some E.C.Bentley since I was so charmed by his parody of Lord Peter, "Greedy Night." Have you read it?

  2. I appreciate it when a mystery writer plays fair. I like to feel as though I've matched my wits against the detective and been given a fair chance of solving the mystery. I was not that astute either. I did read this book before and remembered the method of death, which gave new meaning to the motorcycle scene when I came upon it in this second reading. I have not read any E.C. Bentley. I'll keep my eyes open for his books.