Sunday, October 30, 2011

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death starts with a perfect murder - one that looks natural. Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Detective Charles Parker are discussing death over dinner when a fellow diner breaks in with the tale of an unsuspected murder. The man, a doctor whose country practice had recently been destroyed by a rumor that he had caused (directly or indirectly) the death of one of his patients. Understandably, the man declines to give his name, but Lord Peter can't let this rest. He gives his assistant, the apparently dithery spinster Alexandra Climpson, the task of finding the doctor's late 'victim' and acting as his agent in the investigation. Miss Climpson finds the victim, Agatha Dawson, and the village and settles herself into its distaff society. Meanwhile, Lord Peter's search for the servants dismissed from the Dawson home leads to the death of one and a near escape for Lord Peter himself. A dropped prayer book, an attempt to frame a distant relative (with the unlikely name of Rev. Hallelujah Dawson), and letters which cross in the mail lead to a much more climatic ending than one would expect when the murder's identity is so clear.

I've already mentioned that I'm re-reading the Lord Peter mysteries, and as with Clouds of Witness, I'm getting much more of the humor this time around. Peter and Charles usually investigate separately, but when they interview a witness together, Charles always tries to rush the witness. This invariably causes the witness to go further off point, leading Peter to kick his friend or whisper sarcastic comments while gently leading the witness back to the topic. Miss Clipson's letters to Peter also made me smile - they're informative but so full of emphasized words and phrases that you read them in the voice of an elderly gossip sharing the latest over coffee and a biscuit.

There's one more aspect of Unnatural Death which I didn't notice in the past. Sayers speaks of 'mannish' career women, and independent women aren't viewed in a totally favorable light. However, Sayers was a career woman - an expert in medieval history with an MA from Oxford, she also worked as an advertising copywriter for a few years. I wonder if she was writing what she thought the public would want to read, or was she reflecting criticism that had been aimed at her?

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