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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

Unnatural Death: The Dawson Pedigree by Dorothy Sayers. New York: Avon, 1964 (originally copyright 1927). ISBN: 0-380-00794-0

Dorothy Sayers is one of my all time favorite mystery writers. Some people like Agatha Christie, but I prefer Sayers. I got started quite a few years ago when I was first learning to play handbells, and to direct handbell choirs. Someone mentioned The Nine Tailors, a Sayers mystery which features English change ringing, which is practiced using handbells, I found and read the book, and was hooked.

After that I eventually read all of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and some of Sayers other work as well, although it's the Lord Peter books that I enjoy the most, and which I reread from time to time. My wife and I also enjoyed watching all of the PBS Mystery series that featured Lord Peter, and I have plans to see them again sometime—it's been years since they were on.

My favorite Lord Peter story remains The Nine Tailors, which I've read several times, and plan to read several times more during my life, given the opportunity, and also the last few books which detail Lord Peter's courtship and marriage. But this is a different book entirely. Here, Peter works with his pal, policeman Charles Parker to solve a murder that was never reported as such, and was only suspicious to the murdered old lady's doctor. But later, a young woman is also found dead, and only Lord Peter and his friend put the two together. The local authorities are looking for much simpler and more straightforward explanations.

We also get a good dose of Wimsey's occasional assistant, Miss Climpson, who helps with the investigation by temporarily moving to the town in question, and fitting in among the church ladies and local gossips, to learn whatever she can about events, reporting back to Lord Peter, of course. Miss Climpson, a middle-aged spinster, has a way of talking (and writing, although one has to wonder about that, because surely she can't hand write—or type—italics!) in which key words are emphasized. Here's a sample of her speech:

“Well, now, so am I, Mrs. Peasgood,” rejoined Miss Climpson promptly, “and that is what I said to Mrs. Budge at the time. I said, 'Do I understand that there was anything odd about the old lady's death?—because she had spoken of the peculiar circumstances of the case, and you now, I should not at all like to live in a house which could be called in any way notorious. I should really feel quite uncomfortable about it.”

One of the things I like most about the Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries is that you are at once enveloped in a world far different from our own, the world of Britain between the wars, a world of tea cozies, and trains to London, and church ladies at Evensong, and country lanes, and . . . well, you sort of get the picture.

And you get charming Lord Peter, too, with his manservant, Bunter; Murbles, the solicitor; Miss Climpson, policeman Parker, who eventually marries Peter's sister, Mary; Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, and more delightful characters. Not necessarily all in the same book, or story, of course, but over time you get to know most of them well.

At this point, for me, at least, rereading a Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter mystery is like visiting an old, dear friend. Definitely recommended.

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