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.