Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Unnatural Death”

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Unnatural DeathIn Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey finds the case of his dreams, the perfect crime. One night, he is dining out with his close friend, Charles Parker, an inspector from Scotland Yard, when the man at the table next to him overhears their discussion of the challenges to doctors when they suspect murder. The man, who turns out to be a doctor himself, recounts how he recently had a patient dying of cancer who passed away sooner than expected under the care of her nurse great–niece. An autopsy showed nothing and led to the community’s ostracizing him. What should he have done when he suspected unnatural death but had no evidence?

Though the doctor has given little information about his life, even down to his name, Lord Peter is thoroughly enchanted at the conundrum of the unexplained death. Thus, he uses the knowledge he has in order to locate the town in Leehampton and puts his best operative on the case. Miss Climpson is one of the more than two million women who outnumber marriageable men, mostly due to the First World War, and Lord Peter has arranged to harness the gossip power and natural snooping of spinsters as inquiry agents. In doing so, he provides gainful employment for clever women and an effective means of gaining information for himself and the police. So Miss Climpson goes to the town of Mary Whittaker, where the latter inherited the property of her great-aunt, Agatha Dawson.

The investigation turns into a serious situation when more people get killed, leading Lord Peter to question the issue of his responsibility in the deaths. If he had not interfered, the murderer would likely never have struck again. So is Lord Peter ultimately responsible, at least in part, for the deaths, as a result of his poking his nose into the case? The book deals with this complex ethical issue in asking at what price justice ought to be pursued.

Unnatural Death has a strong plot that holds the reader fascinated throughout, using a clever premise and solution. The characters also delight and charm us, especially with the introduction of Miss Climpson. In creating this spinster, Sayers highlighted the problem of what were then known as “superfluous women.” So many men were killed or too severely maimed for marriage during World War I that this created a drastic imbalance between women and men. Many women then were forced never to be able to marry, for lack of eligible men.

Unnatural Death demonstrates a knowledge of arcane medical and legal details in creating the method of murder, the false clues, and motive. Humorously to me, Wimsey comments that the murderer has been inspired by “an intensive study of Mr. Austin Freeman.” Freeman may be called the first CSI, as he combined both legal issues and forensic issues in his character of Dr. Thorndyke. It seems evident that Sayers did her own research into medical and legal issues to create this well- written book.

The audio edition of the book is performed by Ian Carmichael, who sounds so effective in his roles as both narrator and character of Lord Peter. As the portrayer of Lord Peter on BBC television in the 1970s, Carmichael understands the true character of the sleuth and inserts that depth of knowledge into his performance, making it truly excellent.

In my opinion, Unnatural Death is one of the strongest of Sayers’s novels, with plenty of research evident, as well as plenty of skill in writing. The characters seem very realistic, and the plot is very clever. I give this book five stars!

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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