When mild mannered architect Thipps returns from a business trip to discover a naked corpse in his bath, he finds himself arrested for the murder. Amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is soon embroiled in the case. How is the discovery linked to the disappearance of investment banker Sir Ruben Levy? What is it Thipps is withholding from the investigation? Is there, as Lord Peter suspects, a second man? And how is it both of them have been parading round London in the buff without anyone noticing?
First published in 1923, Whose Body? is the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It is both of its time and not. Dim-witted policemen? Check. ‘Gor-blimey guv’nor,’ salt-of-the-earth common types? Check. Faithful retainer with a useful skill? Check. Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here, as Lord Peter himself might have said. Chuck in brooding scientists, shady American financiers, low nightspots, a country house and a batty, deaf octogenarian and you have the makings of a zingy Roaring Twenties mystery.
Scratch the surface, though, and Dorothy L Sayers has created an interesting central character, part Columbo and part PG Wodehouse’s Psmith, with gadgets to rival 007. In an era where well-heeled sleuths were ten-a-penny, and positively brimming with glee when someone’s cocktail party is cut short by a grisly discovery, Wimsey is a man apart- literally. His Pimpernel-like affectations of speech and manner belie the fact he is suffering from shellshock and has flashbacks to the Great War. In these moments, the irritating verbal flourishes and the manic energy vanish and the reader sees the lost ‘spare’ son of a well-to-do family with a broken heart. Wimsey even admits to sidekick Parker that he is uneasy with his hobby of detection, enjoying the chase but plagued by doubts at the point where someone may hang as a result of his intervention. Compare this with the far more objectionable Bulldog Drummond, whose raison d’ etre stems from the fact that the end of the war was a dashed nuisance because it means he hasn’t been able to kill anyone for ages.
As with Drummond, there are some questionable elements here. Even making concessions for the changes in society since it was published, the book’s casual anti-Semitism makes for uncomfortable reading, with pages 40-41 being particularly jarring. The culprit is visible a mile off, and it feels like the story was written around the denouement to the point where you can even see the join, to quote Eric Morecambe. Inspector Sugg of Scotland Yard is such a lazy caricature that the other characters’ constant bashing of him feels almost deserved. The rest of the supporting cast- the Dowager Duchess of Denver (Lord Peter’s mother), Detective Parker and Lord Peter’s butler (and wartime sergeant) Bunter- are well drawn and likeable. It’s interesting to note that Parker is obviously the better policeman from Sayers’ perspective because he’s an Oxbridge theology graduate whereas Sugg worked his way up through the ranks. Again, it’s the WASP/’RHIP’ viewpoint chiming with more modern sensibilities.
To sum up, Whose Body? is an interesting, if not totally satisfying, read for fans of mystery fiction for the reasons mentioned. It’s a pacy, witty tale with some interesting pauses for thought, ones that make its moments of thoughtlessness the less forgivable.