Monday 1 February 2021

Unnatural Death Revisited

Unnatural Death was Dorothy L. Sayers' third novel, first published in 1927. I first read it when I was very young. At that time I'd read one or two Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but my idea of a detective story was heavily influenced by Agatha Christie and I struggled with a book where it was pretty obvious from an early stage whodunit. I admired Sayers' writing enough to persevere with her work and in time I became a real fan, but although I've dipped into this novel several times, I thought it was about time I read it from cover to cover again. What would my reaction be this time?

It's an interesting story in terms of composition. It's pretty clear that Sayers started with, or conceived at an early stage of writing, two distinct ideas for puzzles or plot twists. Both were ingenious and interesting.  One was inspired by a topical legal issue. The other was a bit of medical know-how (which, it must be said, has been much debated over the years, and is to say the very least rather questionable). Upon these foundations she built a rather unusual story.

It begins with a chance conversation between Wimsey and his policeman friend Charles Parker and a doctor, who tells them a story about an elderly woman's death which he found suspicious. Wimsey is intrigued, and investigates with the aid of his entertaining sidekick Miss Climpson. This novel has never been televised, but if it was adapted, I feel sure a scriptwriter would want to show, rather than tell, what happened to the old lady before her death. Sayers' lack of experience in structuring a novel is rather evident in the early chapters.

The characterisation is fascinating. There are several women in the story who are evidently lesbians, but the mores of the time meant that their sexual orientation is addressed indirectly. Sayers also introduces a character who is significant in relation to the plot and who is black, something uncommon in detective fiction of the Twenties. He's presented very sympathetically, although the language of the time is racist. But you sense that Sayers was trying to do something unorthodox and courageous, even if she wasn't able to do so in a truly satisfactory way.

The killer's psychology is bizarre; there is a descent from ingenuity in murder to wild irrationality. It doesn't ring true, but again, despite the imperfections, one senses that Sayers was groping for a sophistication in writing that was rare in the genre at the time. Unnatural Death is, in short, the work of a writer who is serving her literary apprenticeship and who shows glimpses of great ability. She would produce better books, but there is rather more to this one than I realised when I first read it.



Ted said...

This is actually one of my favorite Sayer's mysteries. Not only because I love the character of Miss Climpson, but the book length is still enjoyable unlike many of her bloated later works.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Ted. Yes, Miss Climpson is a great character. And Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon are definitely rather longer than I'd have thought was really necessary!

Michael Lydon said...

I first read “Unnatural Death” when I was a teenager and really enjoyed it. I still do enjoy it, despite its faults. Julian Symons called it the best of her early works but rather unfairly criticises her for not describing the killer as a lesbian whilst accepting that the literary conventions of the time prevented her from doing so.

According to Janet Hitchman, Sayers wrote to her publisher, Victor Gollancz, saying that she thought “how did they do it?” was a much more interesting question than “who done it?”

I don’t have my copy of “Gaudy Night” to hand but I’m sure there is a scene where Wimsey discusses the morality of his hobby of detection with the dons at the fictional Shrewsbury College. He mentions the events of “Unnatural Death”. He says that other than the victim’s death (which was imminent anyway because of her age and illness) no-one was harmed and the killer inherited the fortune which the deceased wanted them to have. However, as a result of Wimsey’s investigations, two further murders are committed, another attempted and the murderer commits suicide. Though the dons believe Wimsey was right to investigate, Wimsey himself has his doubts. (I’m pretty sure that Wimsey even expresses a degree of sympathy for the murderer, saying something like, what was to me a jolly adventure inspired in the murderer fear for their life, inspiring them to further crimes.)

Martin Edwards said...

Michael, that's a very interesting observation, thank you. The Gaudy Night reference is one I've forgotten completely and I'll look it up.

Michael Lydon said...


The conversation is about halfway through Chapter 17, paragraph beginning, "For example; I happened to find out..."

The conversation is not as I recalled it (which probably says more about me) but it's still interesting.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Michael. I just read it and agree with you. Very interesting indeed.