by Dorothy L. Sayers
Moving to a classic British cozy (and what other nationality did cozy so well?) from last week’s epitome of noir crime fiction is like stepping onto a brightly-lit operetta stage full of patter songs after emerging from a dark tunnel. Making murder into a comedy as Sayers does, at least in the opening of her introduction to the inimitable Lord Peter Wimsey, seems, at first glance, offensive. But even The Maltese Falcon, with its cast of grotesque eccentrics and risible opening scene of an adulterer unable to escape the embraces of a now-unwanted lover, is only a small step away from comedy. And in the morality of murder mysteries, in which the sin of murder must be avenged, one of the worst punishments evil can face is to be made ridiculous.
Whose Body? introduces Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin – an aristocrat without a day job who solved puzzles of deduction as a game. Such amateurs seemed more likely in the early nineteenth century, before the work of law enforcement reformers such as Sir Robert Peel in 1829. But by the end of that century, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes described himself acerbically as a professional “consulting detective,” relying on casework for his income, and deriding Dupin’s famous reproduction of a companion’s train of thought (a feat Holmes then replicated with Dr. Watson).
But the pendulum swung again. Whether through the influx of women into the workforce following the First World War or the wave of democratic feeling that followed that war’s housecleaning of empires, amateur detectives returned in force in the early twentieth century. And young Dorothy Sayers used the trend to plot a more lucrative use for her master of arts degree from
than by writing poetry. The rage at the time was for oddity, both in the crime and the detective, and Whose Body? has oddity in both departments. Oxford
A letter Sayers wrote in early 1921 contains the seed of the plot – “begin(ning) brightly, with a fat lady found dead in her bath with nothing on but her pince-nez. Now why did she wear pince-nez in her bath? If you can guess, you will be in a position to lay hands upon the murderer. . . ”
Sayers’ whimsical Lord Peter, even more than Dupin, engendered a line of mostly amateur detectives that contended for fans with the hard-boiled professionals of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Usually combining Sherlockian skills of observation and forensic training with personal flaws both irritating and endearing, they find followers even today among readers who like their detection with a side of fun. Who agree with the words Sayers put into Lord Peter’s mouth, “. . .this man possessed what most criminals lack – a sense of humour.”
(I had mentally divided mysteries into cozies and not-cozies, so a check of Duotrope’s Digest surprised me with its variety of mystery subgenres, including crime fiction, historic, supernatural and cross-genre. What’s your favorite? Next week – hard-boiled but with panache – Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.)