Lord Peter Views the Body (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Sayers - Lord Peter Views the Body.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

By Dorothy L. Sayers

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1928


 

My review

The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers

Reminiscent of R.L. Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights with its mixture of voices and anecdotal approach, this excellent tale offers little mystery; rather, a highly ingenious and involved plot concerning both impersonation and disposal of the corpse (by turning it into a life-size settee — an agreeably macabre touch).

 

The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question

An agreeably light and undoubtedly “entertaining episode,” in which Wimsey’s attention is caught by a pair of suspicious travellers at a French railway station, and prevents an attempted robbery. The reader will guess the villains’ plan, but it is doubtful whether the clue (the article in question of the title) is fair (although I spotted it without any difficulty).

 

The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will

In the 1920s, hostile critics say, the game was an artificial puzzle. This story certainly is: a crossword puzzle (with clues, and the answer at the back of the book!) — although Van Dine would have resented the Classical and Biblical allusions used to locate the missing will! A great pity that Torquemada made no comment on this story.

 

The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag

A poor story, with an exciting opening: a race between two motor-cyclists), this is a rather poor story. Characterisation is non-existent: the two motor-cyclists Wallen and Simpkin are distinguishable only by their names and by their possession of the bag containing the severed head of the Finbury Park murder victim, the recognition of which as such by Wimsey allows him to lay hands on a character introduced on the last page.

 

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker

A rather trivial story in which Wimsey cheats at cards in order to turn the tables on a blackmailer. There is nothing else to be said.

 

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention

Lengthiness unsuited to contents is Sayers’ principal flaw, and it shows in this story of missing wills, inheritances hinging on the disposal of the corpse of a man who died from natural causes, practical jokes in the church, and sightings of the death-coach (which vanishes into thin air) — elements of black comedy presumably inspired by Stevenson’s The Wrong Box. However, it is not until twenty pages from the end of this 58 page long story that the story proper actually begins. The ending is interesting — but it takes patience and determination to get there.

 

The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran

An ingenious tale which benefits, unlike its predecessor, from being straightforward and to the point. Wimsey does a quick and intelligent job of solving the murder of the gas-company inspector’s Italian wife while paying homage to Reggie Fortune (the staccato and prepositionless style), to Holmes (reasoning from physical clues, all provided; and the exchange, ‘Doctor, this is not a question of your patient. A crime has been committed.’ ‘But there is no mystery.’ ‘There are twenty mysteries. For one thing, when was the window-cleaner here last?’), and to Father Brown (listening to the footsteps).

 

The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste

A rather silly and snobbish story in which three men try to prove that they are Lord Peter Wimsey in a wine-tasting competition, to get the de Rueil formula for poison gas.

 

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

If “A Matter of Taste” allows Wimsey to demonstrate his knowledge of wine, this story showcases his knowledge of old books — and to much better effect. There is more excitement (albeit of a Boys’ Own type, largely due to the presence of Wimsey’s nephew), with burglars and treasure hunters anxious to lay their hands on the retired pirate’s treasure, which Wimsey discovers with the aid of Munster’s Cosmographia Universalis.

 

The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach

Why do detective writers of the Golden Age delight in throwing (metaphorically, of course!) body parts around with such ferocious glee? Here, it is the stomach of Joseph Alexander Ferguson, a deceased Scot with several thousand pounds’ worth of diamond inside him. Highly entertaining, with good Scottish dialogue, and a typically amusing Sayersian irrelevancy: the auction.

 

 

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face

The best story in the collection, so one of Sayers’ best. The story opens with Wimsey’s superbly logical and convincing arguments concerning the time, method and murderer of the faceless corpse on the beach — with only the aid of the newspapers, and without visiting the locale himself! The murderer (SPOILER an artist who painted a picture of the dead man full of hate) and moral ambiguity are both Chestertonian (in psychology, not in approach), and both are handled with the skill of the master.

 

The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba

It says much for Sayers that she is not only able to save this blatant melodrama from a charge of risibility, but to make it convincing. Wimsey passes himself off as dead (killed in a shooting accident in Tanganyika, worth, we learn, the pretty sum of £500,000) and as the ex-footman Joseph Rogers in order to infiltrate the masked Society of thieves and murderers, all of whom (including Number One, suffocated in Wimsey’s safe) are arrested by the end.


Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (6th December 1928):

The title of this collection of a dozen short stories does not belong to any one of them.  It describes rather one of the common hero’s habits, for Lord Peter Wimsey, who is already known to the public, views several corpses, or parts of them, and has dealings with two which he does not see.  One of these two has been disposed of in quite a novel manner, the other is the foundation of the “Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention” in which a spectral coach, a clever country constable, and a parson play their parts, and
Lord Peter finds that he is the ally of an unscrupulous solicitor and a kindly publican in frustrating the machinations of an avaricious legatee.  If, in another story, the corpse has no face, and Lord Peter allows his sense of justice to overcome his regard for the letter of the law, it is counterbalanced in a fourth by a corpse which has no body, and in a fifth by the subject-matter of the “Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach”, a diverting tale of hidden treasure.  That, indeed, is the motif of two other stories which are quite unencumbered by corpses, but conceal their mystery within a cross-word puzzle or in a pictured map.  In the last of these clever and ingenious stories Lord Peter combines science and self-sacrifice in order to make a really spectacular coup as a satisfactory finale.

 

Spectator (8th December 1928, 90w):

The quality of the stories collected in this volume is uneven, some are disappointing, but others are as good as they could be.  Miss Sayers writes good English—a rare quality among detective writers; she has a fine sense of humour and a genius for creating the most unexpected situations.

 

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 31st March 1929, 110w):

This department remains faithful to the mystery works of Dorothy L. Sayers—they’re always delightful.

 

E.C. Bentley (Daily Telegraph):

Of this company of experts in the craft of the mystery-story, Miss Sayers is the latest to have arrived, and with but a few books has placed herself among the leaders.

 

Gerald Gould (Observer):

Her mysteries are close-knit, her manner is striking.  The short stories collected in her new volume will fully satisfy the very high expectation which her admirers have of her.  She is one of the very few detective-story writers who can be flippant without immediately becoming arch, and she pleasantly adulterates crime with literature.

 

Irish Statesman:

Undoubtedly qualifies for a place among the immortals in detective fiction.