Some time a few years after the Great War, Lord Peter Wimsey was informed by his mother of a dead body that showed up in the bath of the architect who was repairing the church in her parish. As Wimsey had a hobby of detective work, he stopped over at Mr. Thipps’ apartment at the Queen Caroline Mansions in London, while his butler Bunter attended the rare book auction in his place. The body was unusual in that the hair was done with the care of a wealthy man, but the fingers evidence manual labor. The body had been lowered from the window, and was in Thipps’ bathtub, completely naked except for a pince-nez. Upon investigation, it seemed that the face had been shaved after death.
Shortly afterwards, Wimsey’s friend Mr. Parker, of Scotland Yard, came by and he mentioned the disappearance of Reuben Levy, a rich (but self-made) Jew who had married into nobility. Levy made his money in the stock market, and was looking forward to concluding a business venture the day following his disappearance. Wimsey suggested that the two swap cases.
A notice Wimsey placed in the Times about the pince-nez got a response, to Wimsey’s surprise, so he paid a visit to the respondent, who turned out to be an elderly lawyer who had lost his glasses on the train. Wimsey also visited an arch-rival of Levy’s, and American railroad businessman, pumping him for information on the excuse of (without authority) inviting him to speak at the fundraiser for the repair of the church. He immediately donated £1000, rather to Wimsey’s surprise, and accepted the invitation. However, he made no progress in the investigation, as the businessman did not appear to have any connection with the disappearance of Levy, beyond a possible hypothetical kidnapping.
Inspector Sugg had arrested Thipps and one of his servants, on what Wimsey and Parker felt to be shaky grounds. Parker attended the public hearing while Wimsey was out visiting. The famous scientist-doctor Sir Julian Freke testified that no bodies were missing at St. Luke’s hospital (located close by Thipps’ apartment). Thipps somewhat dubious story to Sugg (which resulted, in part, in his arrest), was clarified as Thipps told how he had been coerced by an acquaintance into going to a club of ill-repute the night that the body appeared in his apartment. In fact, the place was raided by the police. Sugg’s theory of arrest fell apart and Thipps was let go. Later that evening, Wimsey reads a famous book by Sir Julian in an attempt to fall asleep. He observes that the doctor asserts that conscience is simply a vestigial biological element. Not being successful in falling asleep to Sir Julian, he ends up having an epiphany where he realizes the solution to the dilemma. He also has a PTSD episode that night, where we learn that his butler was his Sergeant during the war.
The solution was simply shocking to contemplate, as Parker agreed. Parker befriends a medical student of Freke’s and Wimsey invites them to his place for the evening. They talk about detective stories, where the discussion is somewhat above the student’s literary background, but they do discuss how unusually detailed the descriptions by the witnesses are in detective novels. By means of demonstrating that the novel is simply summarizing a much longer process, Wimsey questions the student on recent events, and the student is quite surprised that he ends up with a detailed description of the students dissecting a middle-aged, wealthy Jew instead of the pauper from the workhouse he was labelled as.
The next night, Parker has the workhouse exhume the body from the cemetery, and Levy’s widow identifies his body from several marks. Wimsey pays a visit to Sir Julian’s afternoon clinic on nervous conditions, where he recounts his recent PTSD episode and is diagnosed as having mostly healed, but that he can still be triggered by stress. Wimsey declines Sir Julian’s (deadly) injection. Sir Julian is arrested by Sugg later that evening, and writes a lengthy confession to Lord Wimsey, essentially saying that it was the perfect crime except for a couple of small, unforseeable that lead to Wimsey’s unexpected involvement, and that events validate his theory on crime postulated in his books. He says that he did it because he wanted to marry Lady Levy, and was shamed that she preferred a Jew, so had been looking for an opportunity to kill Levy for years. As head of the dissection group at the hospital, he was in control of the flow of bodies, so when a pauper who looked similar to Levy appeared, he did the dead. He bought a worthless security, causing the price to rise and people to suspect somebody knew something. He then tipped Levy that he knew something, inviting Levy to his apartment, where he killed him. As his apartment had a private entrance to the hospital, exchanging bodies was easy. He then took the body to the roof, intending to leave it there, but seeing the open window he put it in Thripps’ apartment as a practical joke, along with the pince-nez he had found on the railway that day.
One thing I like about mystery novels is the snapshot they give into daily life of yesteryear. Sayers presents a young and wealthy Duke who has the means and time to indulge in hobbies. Lord Wimsey is an accomplished pianist, a knowledgeable collector of late medieval printed books, and connoisseur of wine, brandy, and cigars. We see how the aristocracy treats servants as there for every need as well as (in the case of Bunter, anyway) trusted task-men, and we see the contrast with how the nouveau riche use servants merely to help get things done (and sometimes not even that, preferring to do things themselves). We also get a point of view from the servants, of the frustrations with always being on call and having limited time to themselves.
Sayers’ dialog is unusual in that longer dialogues between characters are often compressed, such as the testimony of the witnesses. She tends to write these using the words and point of view of the speaker, and omitting the words of the other person, which can inferred from the answer. This serves to bring out the personality of the speaker, often with exaggerated or humorous effect, as well as condense the dialog. Some of the compressed dialogues combine the speaker’s point of view with the words of a third-person narrator, which also acts as a bit of commentary on the speaker.
The highly rational, materialistic (in the sense of matter is all there is) Sir Julian reminds me of critiques that C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton have of certain societal trends. While Sayers has no polemics like in Chesterton’s mysteries (especially The Man Who Was Thursday), since Sayers was also Christian and from the same time period, it seems likely that her choice of antagonist is a subtle commentary. The socially revered scientist turns out to be the killer: the same rationality that denies the non-materialistic elements like a conscience allows him to kill without remorse. The shock that both Lord Wimsey and Mr. Parker as the evidence accumulates that the socially revered Sir Julian is the killer is possibly simply a faithful portrayal of the response when the assumption of a society that values social standing that high social standing is equivalent to an honorable character is violated. However, it could also be a critique of the broad societal acceptance of scientific materialism. (Sayer’s critique is prescient: it is the atheistic, God-less states that killed the most people in the twentieth century: Stalin in Communist Russia, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in Communist China, and the Khmer Rouge in Communist Cambodia, for a total of 150 million people, more than homicide and genocide put together, and more than the combined death toll from WWI and WWII together.)
Whose Body is Sayer’s first work, and is entertaining. It is much lighter than Chesterton’s mysteries, but with less depth of plot that Agatha Christie. However, it more humorous than either of the two, and gives more of a picture of daily life, much in the same way that O'Henry’s short stories are snapshots of daily life. Lord Wimsey can be rather annoying when not engaged in the plot, as he is long-winded, somewhat self-absorbed, and reeks of privilege (at least from this American’s perspective). On the other hand, it kind of makes me wish I were landed aristocracy... At any rate, a pleasant read.