Thursday, January 06, 2011

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1927/1995. HarperCollins. 288 pages. 

"But if he thought the woman was being murdered--"

Unnnatural Death begins with Lord Peter Wimsey overhearing a certain conversation. He becomes so curious, he asks the speaker to tell his story--the whole story. Dr. Carr is willing to comply--but, for him, the story does not have a happy ending. Because he followed his instincts, because he voiced his suspicions, he lost his medical practice in a small gossipy town. He is happy to tell what he knows. But he doesn't want to be a part of this new investigation.

Dr. Carr was the physician to an elderly woman, Agatha Dawson. The lady's great niece, Mary Whittaker, was her companion and caretaker. When it became too much for one woman--even a woman with training to be a nurse--to handle, the doctor provided a nurse (or two). The doctor became suspicious when his patient died suddenly. He was almost certain that she had more time to live. He thought for sure she had several months at least. The niece did call him telling him that her aunt was doing poorly, but, his subsequent examination of her didn't match that diagnosis. He definitely had doubts about how "natural" her death was. But he had no proof.

Can Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr. Parker--the 'official' detective from Scotland Yard--find the proof needed to reopen the case? Will this new case prove dangerous?

I liked Unnatural Death. I didn't like it as much as Whose Body? I still like Lord Peter Wimsey. I still like Parker. I still like Sayers' style, her narration. But Unnatural Death seemed more racist (to me) than Whose Body? While Whose Body? was not perfect--in that regard--it didn't seem as abrasive.

Here are a few of my favorite lines:

"I told you I'd be turnin' up again before long," said Lord Peter cheerfully. "Sherlock is my name and Holmes is my nature. I'm delighted to see you, Dr. Carr. Your little matter is well in hand, and seein' I'm not required any longer I'll make a noise and buzz off." (38)

"Who is Miss Climpson?"
"Miss Climpson," said Lord Peter, "is my ears and tongue," said Lord Peter, dramatically, "and especially my nose. She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush. She is the angel that rushes in where fools get a clump on the head. She can smell a rat in the dark. In fact, she is the cat's whiskers."
"That's not a bad idea," said Parker.
"Naturally--it is mine, therefore brilliant. Just think. People want questions asked. Whom do they send? A man with large flat feet and a note-book--the sort of man whose private life is conducted in a series of inarticulate grunts. I send a lady with a long, woolly jumper on knitting-needles and jingly things round her neck. Of course she asks questions--everyone expects it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed." (28-9)

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Bev Hankins said...

I love Miss Climpson. She really get her chance to shine in Strong Poison.

And I agree with you, Unnatural Death is not my favorite of the Wimsey novels. But Sayers does know how to write!

Kate Coombs said...

I discovered Dorothy Sayers just last year and love the Peter Wimsey books! But yes, the older stuff sometimes shows its age in non-PC ways.

Anonymous said...

This one is my least favorite Sayers' novel but it has Miss Climpson and I like that. I had read Strong Poison first so I already loved her character because of her awesome role in that one.

J F Norris said...

I'm always interested to read how contemporary readers view this Sayers novel. I keep hoping that I'll finally read a review that dares to talk about the dual meaning of the title. Interestingly, the original American title was changed to The Dawson Pedigree to draw attention away from the apparently uncomfortable second interpretation of the word "unnatural." The death may be unnatural implying murder, but the term unnatural also implies something about lesbian relationships. The idea of "unnaturalness" pervades the book. I'm always disappointed when something this crucial to the plot (and daring for 1927) is just glossed over or completely ignored. Somehow the anti-Semitic remarks always get talked about even in passing. Anti-Semitism, sadly, is something I find repeatedly in mostly UK writers' books throughout the 1920s to the early 1940s. The lesbian aspect of Sayers' book I think is far more pivotal to the overall story and it is rarely talked about. In fact, many readers I find are embarrassed by it and think they are "reading too much" into the story. Let me say this: It's there and it's intended.

Birdie said...

I agree that this is not the best of the Lord Peter mysteries. Persevere, though, because the other books are fabulous!