Unnatural Death (Dorothy L. Sayers)

  • By Dorothy L. Sayers
  • First published: UK: Ernest Benn, 1927.  Published in the US as The Dawson Pedigree.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Wimsey, helped by Chief Inspector Parker (erroneously called ‘sir’ by a Superintendent!), believes old Agatha Dawson was murdered, but all the evidence shows she died from natural causes. Several deaths from natural causes follow, including  Bertha Gotobed, Miss Dawson’s maid.  Wimesy’s sleuthing here is brilliant, rather like Reggie Fortune.

It’s a howdunit rather than a whodunit.  Like Whose Body? and Strong Poison, the villain is known from the beginning; the interest lies in working out how the crime was committed and how the murderer will be arrested, a similar idea to R. Austin Freeman‘s inverted tales, but with more mystery.  The method is ingenious, although some have quibbled.  It’s not the size that matters, though.

The New Property Act, an empty syringe (superb!), and a moral discussion of euthanasia and Catholicism all feature.

Blurb (UK)

All the more distinguished connoisseurs of detective fiction recognised Miss Sayers as a detective writer of the first rank when, some two or three years ago she published in rapid succession those two masterpieces “Whose Body?” and “Clouds of Witness”.  She has been silent for an unduly long period; but “Unnatural Death” will be found worth the waiting.  Lord Peter Wimsey is again, as in the two previous books, Miss Sayer’s [sic] detective-hero.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (29th September 1927): Lord Peter Wimsey, impressed by the experiences related by an unknown physician in connexion with the death of an anonymous old lady in an unspecified place, is so convinced that murder has been done, in spite of the absence of evidence to support that theory, that he sets out to investigate.  So effectively does he organise matters that it very soon become apparent that his opponent is being hard pressed.  In these circumstances that opponent loses that coolness so needful to successful criminals and commits fresh murders in order to get rid of inconvenient evidence, and thereby provides a fresh supply.  The original crime was closely connected with the recent changes in the law governing the inheritance of the property of intestates.  Miss Sayers manages to make her law quite intelligible to the reader, and the intricate relationships of the first victim, the criminal, and the various ancestors and kinsfolk who are mentioned are clearly explained in a pedigree.  The story is closely and carefully written.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 5th February 1928, 130w): Dorothy Sayers may as well be put on the approved list of mystery-mongers for good and all.  Miss Sayers swings a full-bodied story, furnished with a gallery of lifelike persons.

Boston Transcript (21st February 1928, 200w): The style is often irritatingly facetious, and the author attempts too often and too obviously to show her knowledge of literature and her wide, quotable reading.  At the outset, the hero impresses one as being the type who would be much more apt to go in for amateur theatricals or the running of a tea room.  As the pace quickens, either the artificiality of the style and story is lost, or it is there only to be overlooked.