My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
If Clouds of Witness presented a tragic situation that it tried to make comic, even going so far as to end in the possibility of a future marriage, Unnatural Death goes the other way. It starts with that mots benign of detective story openers, the detective happening to overhear a fellow patron at a bar with some problem they cannot figure out themselves. But when Lord Peter Wimsey begins to investigate what looks to be a diverting question of inheritance and a missing person, in inadvertently inspires another murder, and then the bodies start falling in earnest.
In a more modern detective novel, the resulting tale would almost feel like an indictment of Wimsey’s habit of sticking his nose in other people’s business—this being a more traditional story, it turns out his skills are necessary to solve the case, and it maybe turns out that he wasn’t to blame for the initial death after all. Ah, well. Unnatural Death was published in 1927, meaning audiences wouldn’t have to wait long for true subversions of the detective novel to appear in print. And as an example of the “impossible murder” case, where people keep dying off with what looks like natural causes but feels like murder, it works well.
Of the many things Sayers does well in these novels, the one most worth noting is how the discovery of the culprit rarely ends the novel. Rather than taking the criminal’s capture for granted, Lord Peter and Mr. Parker must go through the logistics of successfully hunting them down, a process which is far more involved (and more gruesome) here than in many other detective novels.
One thing Sayers does here that has aged rather poorly and which I cannot discuss without getting into serious, major, book-breaking, DO NOT READ PAST THIS IF YOU DON’T WANT IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT THE MURDERER REVEALED-type spoilers, is her novel’s treatment of the eventual culprit, which might well be one of the first examples of the “murderous lesbian” trope, and is certainly the earliest I have come across. It’s never overtly described as such, but the stereotypes are all there, right down to one of the lesbians attempting to seduce and murder Lord Peter, in a sequence so absurd that I’d rather it had been played for laughs than for the bathetic scene it becomes.
But even here, Sayers is doing something that she seems to return to in later stories and novels: using the detective story to explore the lives of people who are overlooked by society, such as old women who stay unmarried and occasionally move in together. Unnatural Death’s most entertaining character is another such woman, an old Catholic spinster named Miss Climpson, who Lord Peter regularly employs for reconnaissance, because, after all, who better to find out everything about everyone than an old woman who likes to know all the local gossip? Just as the murderers are overlooked by the police the same way they are overlooked by society, Miss Climpson proves a fearfully good detective because her position causes everyone to look on her as a harmless old gossip. Like Miss Climpson, Sayers does sometimes appear a little old-fashioned in her opinions. But, like Miss Climpson, this does not prevent her from having a clear-eyed understanding of how the world works.
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