Lord Peter Wimsey and Detective-Inspector Charles Parker were eating dinner at a nice Soho restaurant when they overheard a doctor complaining about life as a doctor. The as-yet-unrevealed Lord Peter invited the doctor to explain more. He had purchased a practice in the country from a retiring doctor, and was liked by his clientele. He attended to an old spinster slowly dying of cancer, a Miss Dawson. Miss Dawson was in the care of her young niece, Miss Whittaker, a nurse by trade. Miss Dawson had no immediate surviving relatives, and had indicated verbally that her niece should inherit her sizable estate. At one point the servants heard Miss Dawson yell “you’re trying to kill me before my time!” during a visit from a lawyer, who was not seen again. Soon, the doctor’s fiancee, the nurse attending to Miss Dawson was dismissed, as well as several long-employed maids. Despite the cancer, Miss Dawson was not dying at a great rate, so it was a surprise when Miss Whittaker informed him that she had died. He asked to examine the body, as her death seemed unusual, but found nothing. Miss Whittaker used this failure to raise public ire against him, and he was forced to sell the practice and purchase another one elsewhere.
Peter thought this was odd, and started investigating. He had hired a gossipy spinster named Miss Climpson to do investigations for him, as talkative, gossipy old woman could ask plenty of questions without raising suspicions, and Miss Climpson was particularly good at it. He assigned her to go to Hampshire where the doctor had his practice and take up residence there as a woman retired on £800/yr (a comfortable sum). She examined the records and found that the doctor was truthful in all points, and that the scandal of the doctor’s suspicions of foul-play still alive. She located the lawyer mentioned by the doctor. She joined the ladies circle and met Miss Whittaker. Her communications to Lord Peter were in the form of rather tiring letters, full of exclamation marks and italics at odd locations, but which showed her efficacy as an investigator.
Peter put an advertisement in the paper, ostensibly from the lawyer, J. Murbles, requesting Bertha and Evelyn Gotobed (the two maids that were dismissed, identified by Miss Climpson) see him for “something to their advantage.” Shortly afterwards Bertha Gotobed was found dead, apparently picknicking in Epping Forest. Investigation suggested that she had been murdered, but no sign of foul play was evident. It was also discovered that her sister, Evelyn, had married a Canadian farmer and had gone to him. She was informed of her sisters death and requested to return. (As this was 1927, this would naturally take some time.) A £5 note found on Bertha was traced to a Mrs. Forrest, whom Peter and Charles visited. Peter surreptitiously managed to get Mrs. Forrest’s fingerprints on a glass, which took with him.
Peter visits Murbles, and discovers that Miss Dawson had a strong aversion to discussing her death, and refused to make out a will. Miss Whittaker had tried to sneak a will in with some other papers for her to sign, but she discovered it and made the scene previously referred to. A discussion with a lawyer friend for Peters turned up the information that in 1925 a new law had been passed by Parliament regarding inheritance. Previously, inheritances in the case of no will went to the nearest kin, however far removed they might be. However, the new law was worded in such a way that it suggested that great-nieces (e.g. Miss Whittaker) might possibly be excluded from inheritances. Some discussion among lawyers (technically, “solicitors,” since this was in Britain) ensued, with the prevailing opinion being that great-nieces would likely not inherit, and the inheritance would go to the Crown instead. Miss Dawson had conveniently died at the end of 1925, before the law went into effect in January 1926.
Peter made inquiries among lawyers if someone had asked about the new law regarding great-nieces. After some searching, he found a lawyer who had experienced such an inquiry, made memorable by subsequent events. A young woman with a scar on her hand had asked about the new law. Some time later she had phoned him to come to Hamstead Heath and witness a will of someone dying. He took a taxi, and found the address was a rather remote house, and was rather unusually dark. There was a woman in bed, who offered him some brandy, which he accepted. She dictated the will, and then they had to wait for her servant to return. While they did, the lawyer became increasingly sleepy and was unable to rouse himself despite feeling that something odd was going on. He noticed that the woman had a scar on her hand. Fortunately, the taxi driver got tired of waiting and knocked on the door. He witness the will, and took him home. By that time he was sound asleep, obviously drugged.
Miss Whittaker was off looking for a country house with a young girl whom she had persuaded to the spinster ways. However, Mrs. Forrest called Peter and requested that he visit her that evening. Peter went, though with some precautions. He declined the coffee offered him, saying that he preferred it with sugar. Mrs. Forrest appeared to try to be making advances at him, but she did not seem to have the right emotions with it. In fact, when he forwardly kissed her, she drew back in revulsion, revealing to Peter that her advances were really something else.
Peter made a visit to Miss Whittaker’s town to visit a cousin that had appeared. He discovered that the girl had been gone longer than expected, called Charles, and they drove out to the beach where Miss Whittaker and the girl had gone. They discovered her dead, with circumstances that suggested that thieves attacked them and killed her. However, a cursory examination of footprints suggested something other.
Meanwhile, Miss Climpson had found some notes near the confessional in the Catholic church she had been been attending in Miss Whittaker’s town. Confessional notes are merest hints, but being Catholic herself, Miss Climpson knew what kinds of sins they would refer to. This had taken her back to London to investigate Mrs. Forrest on her own initiative. It almost got her killed, as she recognized Mrs. Forrest and Miss Whittaker (and Miss Whittaker recognized her). Peter and Charles arrived at Mrs. Forrest’s house shortly afterwards, and found that Miss Whittaker, a.k.a. Mrs. Forrest, was trying to inject Miss Climpson with something. After subduing Miss Whittaker, they discovered the injection was air, which causes the heart to stop. (Liquid does not compress, so as the heart compresses, the blood moves out. Air does compress, however, so an air bubble in the blood causes the blood to stop moving when then bubble gets to the heart.) As a nurse, Miss Whittaker would know this, and also know that the symptom is simply a stopped heart.
This mystery novel is unusual in that there is never any doubt about who did it. Aside from the few early chapters where it is possible that the lawyer, doctor, nurses, or servants could have done it, it becomes increasingly likely that Miss Whittaker did it. When the discovery of the law is made, it provides a motive for Miss Whittaker, and the rest of the book becomes about figuring out how she did it, not whether she did it. I like the change, and it also shows that mystery novels are less about coming to the right conclusion and more about uncovering a mystery, “mystery” being “something hidden,” in this case the method.
This mystery has no court evidence, and so it lacks that charming summaries of Sayers’ previous book, Whose Body, although Miss Climpson’s letters clearly capture a chattering (but intelligent) old gossip. Lord Peter is less of a character than previous. He becomes more of a skilled lay-detective, with less of the decadent nobility dabbling in investigation than previously. While his personality is less vivid, it is also less annoying. It also has less of a window into early-twentieth century British aristocracy, as Lord Peter is always out doing something.