The Literary Life in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Mystery, Whose Body? (1923)

Dorothy L. Sayers has fallen into my life–and I into hers–because of my gloriously irresponsible definition of the Inklings. With a lifelong interest in J.R.R. Tolkien, and a growing curiosity about C.S. Lewis, I was thrilled to discover an entire shelf dedicated to “The Inklings” at the Regent College Bookstore. Regent College in Vancouver where I chose to study sacred literature and spiritual theology at a graduate level. Regent was where I had the innocent audacity to treat St. Paul’s letters like fictional worlds in my thesis, beginning my real path to becoming a Theologian of Literature, or Literary Theologian, or whatever we might want to call it.

The Regent College Bookstore is an admirable species of its kind. It also, I believe, has a somewhat promiscuous definition of the Inklings. I have no doubt that G.K. Chesterton was in that section–and if George MacDonald was not there, he was nearby.

The Bookstore had everything Lewis-related one could imagine, as any local bookstore of its kind would. However, it also included the philosopher-poet novelist Charles Williams–no doubt because philosopher-poet professor Loren Wilkinson is one of the few folks brave enough to offer an entire graduate-level class on Charles Williams‘ theology. Before Amazon and print-on-demand gave us access to obscure and out-of-print works, the Regent College press released many of Williams’ novels and plays, as well as his theological study, The Descent of the Dove. Though I had not yet met Owen Barfield at Regent–the First and Last Inkling, and the figure who most continuously enlightens and endarkens my study of Lewis and Tolkien and literary theory–I have no doubt the bookstore had Barfield’s most important work.

Besides the Fantastic Four–Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield–extending my reading into the larger literary alliance of the Inklings has been valuable to me. I have explored Christopher Tolkien‘s work as a literary scholar and (of course) Middle-earth editor. Warren Lewis–Jack’s big brother–is a surprisingly clear and thoughtful writer in his diaries and his French histories, like The Splendid Century. Nevill Coghill has enriched my reading of Chaucer, and Hugo Dyson supplies one of the most quotable and least fully-quoted Inklings quotations that is likely to be apocryphal.

Chesterton and MacDonald are among the roots of Tolkien and Lewis’ literary mountains, to use Douglas Anderson’s phrase. So I have followed Regent’s lead–as well as the framework of the Seven Wade authors from the Wheaton archive–in allowing myself to be enriched by what I call the Honourary Inklings. One of these Honourary Inklings is a Dorothy L. Sayers–a Regent Bookstore Inkling betimes, a Wade author, and one of the transmedial intellectual-populist “Oxford Christians” of the Inklings generation.

Given the popularity of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels and successive film, radio, and television adaptations, there is no doubt that Sayers would have been known in her generation as a novelist. Sayers was one of the Queens of Crime, and a founding member (with Chesterton) of The Detection Club–formed in 1930 as a ragtag group of UK mystery writers and still meeting today.

Previously, though–and most centrally, I believe–Sayers was a poet. Later, Sayers the playwright would have been considered for her WWII BBC radio passion play, The Man Born to Be King, as well as other notable plays (such as “The Just Vengence,” 1946). Or she may have been considered for her theological reflections and influential essays like “Are Women Human?” And then, almost by surprise, a fifth motif in Sayers’ literary score is her translation of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, published by Penguin as Hell (1949), Purgatory (1955,) and Paradise (1962, completed by Barbara Reynolds).

My own discovery of Sayers is an unusual literary journey. My first encounter with her writing was in her letters. I was surprised by the sudden bright energy of Lewis’ letters to Sayers, and so I turned to Sayers’ letter collection (by Barbara Reynolds) to fill out my reading. Though I sense that Sayers’ letters to Lewis are a bit guarded, they are blunt, personal, thoughtful, and ironic. Sayers’ demonical response to Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is clever and endearing. “The Sluckdrib Letter” is uniquely self-deprecating, as Sluckdrib is the demon assigned to Sayers herself. The letter artfully offers a reflection on the spiritual complexities of the writing life (you can read the entire Sluckrib Letter with my commentary here).

Following the Lewis-Sayers letters, I read The Man Born to be King in book form (I later listened to a BBC production), and I agree with the Lewis brothers that it works as Lenten or Eastertide reading. Also from WWII, Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker (1941) is, I believe, one of the more important works in my theological understanding of creativity and vocation.

I then began hopscotching through Sayers’ essays, including Sayers’ long contribution on Dante to the paperback Inklings colloquium edited by C.S. Lewis, Essays Presented to Charles Williams (which included formative essays like Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories,” C.S. Lewis’ “On Stories,” and Warren Lewis‘ first historical work). From Sayers’ tribute to Williams and Dante, I began working slowly through her translations of The Divine Comedy. Sayers’ attempt to preserve Dante’s original Italian terza rima rhyme structure in English makes for a refreshing reading of the Comedy. However, for me as an amateur, Sayers’ most helpful work is her commentary and resource guide for each book and each Canto–“supplementary” notes that make up more than half of each volume. I would love someday to have an interactive version of Sayers’ Dante, with a dramatized reading of the text, visualizations of the notes, and nicely designed maps and reading guides based on Sayers’ notes.

It was only then, having found Sayers through letters, theological and literary reflection, and translation, that I turned to Lord Peter Wimsey. Almost all of the mystery fiction I have enjoyed comes from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction–Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton, in particular–and the Sherlocks before, within, and after the Golden Age. So while I can offer very little critical judgement of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels as a specimen of the genre, I can give a brief response from my growing sense of Sayers the writer.

And Whose Body? is where it all began in the early 1920s, not long after Sayers received her MA–5 years after she had received first-class honours for doing the work at Somerville College, Oxford. Sayers had published poetry and worked in education, publishing, and advertising, and found herself writing a bit of detective fiction.

Whose Body? is lovely to read. Lord Peter Wimsey is a deeply ironic nobleman who has an awkwardly affable relationship with English aristocratic life and who has begun amateur sleuthing to stimulate his mind and fill his hours. Whose Body? begins when Lord Peter, by some coincidence, catches wind of a murder. A hilariously daft architect has found a dead man in his bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. Within hours of the discovery, Inspector Sugg–a police detective deeply committed to following false presumptions to their logical conclusion–has arrested two innocent people (hoping that one of them might be the murderer) and sent the wife of a missing Sir Reuben Levy into despair by falsely identifying the body as his. As the weight of police incompetence has further obscured the paucity of evidence, Lord Peter is recruited as a resource for solving the crime.

Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey has an uncommon intellectual gift for observation and logic. Wimsey, though, has Watsons everywhere in Whose Body?  Chief of these is Mervyn Bunter, Lord Peter’s “man,” a butler who keeps Wimsey shaved and in suits and stumbling on the next piece of evidence. Mr. Bunter is intensely competent, cooly sarcastic, and able to anticipate Lord Peter’s personal needs and legal curiosities. Bunter is a photographer, and thus supplies some of the scientific basis for Wimsey’s work, and opens their investigations up to other levels of society.

Mr. Bunter is the chief Watson, but Lord Peter collects these people.

Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Parker is a true partner in crime detection: a competent and thoughtful policeman who is friendly enough with Lord Peter to trust him, but distant enough to provide counterpoints and other perspectives as they talk through the case.

Lord Peter’s mother, Dowager Duchess of Denver Honoria Lucasta Delagardie, provides cunningly accidental support–“The Duchess was always of the greatest assistance to his hobby of criminal investigation, though she never alluded to it, and maintained a polite fiction of its non-existence” (ch. 1)–however, discretion is not her first line.

And whether they know it or not, Wimsey is able to use experts as his Watsons, like the neurologist Sir Julian Freke or medical student Mr. Piggott. Lord Peter is even able to use Inspector Sugg’s reliable incompetence to sift the evidence.

Beyond Lord Peter’s success in using all of these Golden Age collaborators, he is by temperament patient, generous with port, distrustful, a lover of fiction, deeply intuitive, and thrilled by the adventure. He also suffers from PTSD, or shell shock, from his experience in WWI. Despite his high-profile position and trust in his own critical intelligence, Lord Peter does not invest his suffering with shame, but invites his various kinds of Watsons into this weakness.

And although “Lord Peter Wimsey was not a young man who habitually took himself very seriously,” he discovers in himself a deeply rooted moral centre that goes beyond social expectation, evolutionary design, and personal instinct–though I am not certain he has understood the full nature of his self-awakening in Whose Body?

Sayers the author, though, recognizes Lord Peter’s conversion of the soul, even if no one in the story does. This moment of crisis between Lord Peter and Inspector Parker shows all Wimsey’s moral character: weariness in the weight of suffering, a commitment to goodness and truth, the desire to see himself truly, and his sardonic sense of humour:

“Look here, Wimsey,” said Inspector Parker, “do you think he has murdered Levy?”

“Well, he may have.”

“But do you think he has?”

“I don’t want to think so.”

“Because he has taken a fancy to you?”

“Well, that biases me, of course—”

“I daresay it’s quite a legitimate bias. You don’t think a callous murderer would be likely to take a fancy to you?”

“Well—besides, I’ve taken rather a fancy to him.”

“I daresay that’s quite legitimate, too. You’ve observed him and made a subconscious deduction from your observations, and the result is, you don’t think he did it. Well, why not? You’re entitled to take that into account.”

“But perhaps I’m wrong and he did do it,” Lord Peter admitted.

“Then why let your vainglorious conceit in your own power of estimating character stand in the way of unmasking the singularly cold-blooded murder of an innocent and lovable man?”

“I know—but I don’t feel I’m playing the game somehow.”

“Look here, Peter,” said the other with some earnestness, “suppose you get this playing-fields-of-Eton complex out of your system once and for all. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that something unpleasant has happened to Sir Reuben Levy. Call it murder, to strengthen the argument. If Sir Reuben has been murdered, is it a game? and is it fair to treat it as a game?”

“That’s what I’m ashamed of, really,” said Lord Peter. “It is a game to me, to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt, and I want to get out of it.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” said the detective, “but that’s because you’re thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That’s all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn’t any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent—what’s that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, ‘Well played—hard luck—you shall have your revenge tomorrow!’ Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.”

“I don’t think you ought to read so much theology,” said Lord Peter. “It has a brutalizing influence (ch. 7, with a couple of slight changes)”

Although she never attended an Inklings meeting, Dorothy L. Sayers has become part of my mental collective of British Christian authors who combined intellectual life and popular, genre-defining fiction and contributions to culture.

While my path into Sayers’ work was unusual, there is continuity throughout: the artful irony, spiritual curiosity, careful self-depreciation, and literary skill that I detected in her letters are features in all of her writing–including her first detective novel, Whose Body?. Not all of the literary experiments work in this first novel: using letters, interviews, and courtroom testimony is effective, while the occasional interruption of second-person narration feels disconnected to me. And I don’t think that Lord Peter is quite settled as a character.

However, by whatever path you find your way to the novel, Whose Body? is a delightful book for first-time Sayers readers or long-term Inkling friends.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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25 Responses to The Literary Life in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Mystery, Whose Body? (1923)

  1. Owen A. Barfield says:

    Owen Barfield has a strong association with Vancouver, he was Visiting Professor at the Uni of British Columbia in 1978, and gave an important series of lectures there which became the book ‘History, Guilt and Habit’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I knew of a link to UBC, but I hadn’t thought of where the lectures went from there. Regent College is on the UBC campus, and I knew later that some knew Barfield’s work. I just hadn’t made any connections at that time. Indeed, I had not really moved from literary theory to linguistic and literary theory yet at that time (and Barfield’s literary theories of consciousness).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Owen A. Barfield says:

        Thanks Brenton, Let’s hope that more people follow the path you are on.

        Liked by 3 people

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          There’s a fine reference in Owen Barfield’s 1977 lecture, “Lewis, Truth, and Imagination” to “a widespread feeling that there is some kind of deep connection between authentic art, as art, and genuine religion: such a feeling as was […] given expression in, for example, Dorothy Sayers’s play The Zeal of Thy House.”

          Liked by 2 people

          • Owen A. Barfield says:

            Thanks for drawing our attention to this. That OB essay can be found in the book ‘Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis’.

            Liked by 1 person

          • “The Zeal of Thy House” gets mentioned quite a lot, I’ve found.

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              It is a good one! I still have not read every one of her plays – but have enjoyed all I have read – and seen (Busman’s Honeymoon with Harriet Walker and Edward Petherbridge!).

              For that matter, I am delighted to have read the published versions of two collaborative works read in installments on the BBC by their authors, members of the Detection Club – including Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie – Behind the Screen and The Scoop (which have their own Wikipedia article together)!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. hatrack4 says:

    You have hit upon my muse, of sorts. I started watching the A&E series of mystery shows (rotating between Sayers, Dick Francis, and Ruth Rendell) back in the 80s when the football game was boring and then preferring it to the game. Lord Peter Wimsey (played by Ian Carmichael) had me hooked. And my reading went from a couple of books each month to a couple of books each week or more. But alas, I have only read Sayers fiction, all of it including a few written by someone else using her notes. It is the reason my fiction on my blogsite has a category of “Wednesdays with Wimsey.” Folks think I misspelled Wimsey. Thank you for giving me some titles. I knew I was missing something without spreading into her theology. But as for the fiction, I love her characters, probably the same reason that I loved reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, getting to know the fictional character better than I know my next-door neighbor. But that characterization is probably more about me not getting out very much.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. mlktrout says:

    Loved your exploration of Dorothy Sayers’ writing. I discovered Lord Peter from buying a collection of his short stories, and then I couldn’t sleep until I’d acquired all his novels too. Then I fell hard for DLS herself when I read “Are Women Human?” I wanted to read everything she wrote–even her Dante, which was funny because at the time I knew as much about Medieval Italian literature as I did about advanced calculus (not much; I can with some difficulty and a calculator work out the sum of 2+2). I had never given much thought to her correspondence, though–well, I never knew it had been preserved, to be totally honest), so thanks for that. I now have more wonderful books on which to spend my hubby’s money! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Are Women Human?”–jeepers, just the name of the essay/talk does so much! Quite different in impact and cultural implication, but it is an “Ain’t I a Woman?” moment for the UK.
      They letters are a wee bit hard to find, but I got mine through the Dorothy l. Sayers’ society. It was a costly investment–but any of the volumes is lovely to read on its own.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Very nice! And, I think, good advice to start with Who’s Body? and read – or at least sometime reread – the Wimsey works in publication order (though I’m not sure how the short stories fit in – except ‘Talboys’, which is later in his life than most if not all). And there’s ‘The Wimsey Papers’ for those acquainted with the characters – apparently out-of-copyright in Canada as they are online at fadedpage, but probably most enjoyable to read as annotated by Suzanne Bray in God, Hitler and Lord Peter Wimsey: Selected Essays, Speeches and Articles by Dorothy L. Sayers (2019).

    And I’m with hatrack4, the late Ian Carmichael is a superb Wimsey to see – or hear, as he also appeared in radio-play versions of some novels and is responsible for wonderful audiobooks of ( I think) all the novels and stories! We certainly regularly relisten to a lot of them.

    Lewis has a nice letter to her where he says something to the effect that she writes such good letters that she may well be best known for them in the future, with a footnote about the other things she wrote. We still have not read all of them (alas!), but it’s great so many were published.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis by Gina Dalfonzo, a Review | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. Erin says:

    I loved reading your assessment of Sayers here. Aside from Lewis (through Narnia) and Tolkien, she was my third Inkling encountered, at my high school English teachers recommendation. I wrote my undergrad thesis on Gaudy Night, and Sayers work, especially her mysteries, has been one of the deep influences on my life.

    Like someone else recommended, it’s a good idea to read them in publication order at some point, particularly Strong Poison/Have His Carcase/Gaudy Night/Busman’s Honeymoon, as they form a quintet.
    You are absolutely right that Wimsey isn’t settled as a character yet in Whose Body? One of the pleasures of reading chronologically is watching him do so over time (this is what I wrote my thesis on). Perhaps not surprisingly, the books become more philosophical at the same time. I hope you continue to share your thoughts as you read the series; I look forward to hearing more.

    Liked by 1 person

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