Whose Body? (Dorothy L. Sayers)

By Dorothy L. Sayers

First published: UK, T. Fisher Unwin, 1923

Blurb (UK)

Sayers - Whose Body.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Whose was the dead, naked body that suddenly appeared in the bathroom of a respectable suburban resident?  And how did Sir Reuben Levy, the financier, vanish from his own mansion in Park Lane, attired only in a latchkey and his artificial teeth?  These were the problems which Lord Peter Wimsey, blandest of unprofessional sleuths, set out to solve, at some risk to his life and to the nerves of the reader.  A detective novel of a new type, full of thrills and strange occurrences.

My review

The first Wimsey novel, and one of the most consistently entertaining. Although Wimsey is too bright and breezy, he is an entertaining companion to crime, although suffers too much from conscience. (Dr. Priestley’s amoral attitude is preferable!) He enjoys the detection, “but if it comes to really running down a live person and getting him hanged, or even quodded, poor devil, there don’t seem as if there was any excuse for me buttin’ in, since I don’t have to make my livin’ by it. And I feel as if I oughtn’t ever to find it amusin’. But I do.” The reader, who has no conscience to worry him, enjoys the whole thing without a single moral qualm, for the story is bright and amusing. Nor is the serious business of detection neglected. Opening with the fine and striking idea of the body in the bathtub, rightly described as an “uncommon good incident for a detective story,” the plot is complicated by the disappearance of Sir Reuben Levy. The murderer’s identity is revealed half-way through, and the pleasure of the second half is in seeing an elaborate, ingenious and gory plot unfold, and Wimsey’s attempts to gather evidence.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (25th October 1923):

Originality is not the strong point of this story.  The characters look like composite photographs made up of several old friends, and where the incidents are original they are fantastically impossible.  All the same, it is a lively tale and rather good fun.  The central figure is Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur criminologist and a bibliophil.  He is assisted in his hobbies by his butler and valet Bunter, who is equally competent to buy a rare edition for him in the sale room, photograph finger-prints for the detective work, or do any other little job in that line.  They get busy on a couple of mysterious occurrences which happen to coincide and are thrown in their way.  One is the disappearance of Sir Reuben Levy, the well-known financier; the other the discovery of a dead body, with nothing on but a pair of gold pince-nez, in the bath of a Battersea flat occupied by little Mr. Thipps, who happens to be the architect engaged in repairing the church down at Denver, where Lord Peter’s mother, the Duchess, lives.  This dead body, so adorned, is an original touch, but it entails an explanation which passes the elastic bounds of the permissible.  Inspector Sugg is so convinced that the body is Sir Reuben Levy’s so we know at once that it is not, even without Lord Peter Wimsey’s brilliant proofs to the contrary.  But whose body is it?  That is the question.  The reader must find out, with Lord Peter’s assistance.


Observer (Torquemada, 14th July 1935):


Miss Dorothy L. Sayers is a wit and a scholar, as well as being mentally detective; it was a day now marked with a red stone in the history of crime fiction when she determined to let a member of Lord Peter’s family be plunged into the soup, and thereafter to be picked out and tidied up with fastidious neatness by Wimsey himself.  And now a day almost as significant, at least to the impecunious, dawns with the publication by Messrs. Gollancz of the first five “cheap” Sayers.  These reprints are a joy to read, and to handle while reading; the only thing “cheap” about them is, in fact, the price.

Setting aside for future re-reading the excellent scientific collaboration with Robert Eustace, veteran of collaborators, we now have the holiday chance of refreshing our memories of Peter Death Bredon Wimsey’s first four cases—Whose Body? is my particular favourite—and of reading for the first time the biographical details communicated by his uncle, Paul Austin Delagardie.  Personally, I cannot believe that this noticeable Etonian needed avuncular guidance in matters of wine and women.  But Miss Sayers knows best.  At least, with Lord Peter we always live in a world of charming authenticity.  Anyone who has not previously been admitted to that world must buy these sooth-Sayers.


NY World (E.W. Osborn, 20th May 1923, 350w):

Murder is no joke, but Dorothy L. Sayers has found assuredly a uniquely lighthearted way of exploiting it.


NY Times (27th May 1923, 530w):

The tale is better written, and has a good deal more of characterisation than one finds in the average detective story.  The interest of the narrative is maintained up to the very end, and if Miss Sayers can maintain the standard she has set for herself in this tale, there seems to be no reason why the discerning, but by no means infallible, Lord Peter should not become one of the best-known and best-liked among the many amateur detectives of fiction.


Boston Transcript (6th June 1923, 350w):

The story is justly exciting during the first third of the book.  Unfortunately its author has a way of whipping up our interest by sending her amateur detective off on false scents, by giving us tedious algebraic paragraphs which prove nothing, and then filling up pages with small talk.


Int Bk R (September 1923, 280w):

It is a very entertaining mystery yarn.


Nation (5th September 1923, 60w):

Here is quite the maddest, jolliest crime story of recent memory.  Seldom has a murder been made so delightfully mysterious and rarely has the gentleman detective been cast in quite so attractive a guise as that of Lord Peter Wimsey, to whom books in first folios and bodies in bathtubs are of equal interest.  An absorbing story and a well-written book.