Unnatural Death/Previously Published As the Dawson Pedigree by Dorothy L. Sayers
Publisher: Harperperennial Library; Reissue edition (July 1993)
Mystery with style!, May 29, 2003
from Bloomington, IN USA
Dorothy Sayers, a.k.a. Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming, one of the first women to ever be granted a degree from Oxford University, created one of the leading figures in, and indeed in so doing helped to create the genre of, the British mystery novels. Lord Peter Wimsey, an elegant, refined London-based aristocrat with a taste for books and a penchant for the piano, is again here the leading figure, in Unnatural Death, also published as The Dawson Pedigree. Wimsey is an old Etonian, Balliol Oxford (of course), served with distinction in His Majesty's forces during the War (this book having been written in 1927, I shall leave it to your good services to deduce which War), who resides both town and country somewhat fashionably, and takes great pride in the ancient family history (by the time one gets to be the fifteenth Duke of anything, the family can be easily considered ancient). Wimsey has a vocation as criminologist, not out of necessity, surely, and not by training either (for such training did not formally exist, but, as an Oxford Arts man, he was trained for most anything intellectual, or at least, that is what an Oxford Arts man would tell you). An interesting addition to the beginning of the book is a short biographical sketch of the fictional Wimsey by his equally-fictional uncle. All of this, of course, is but preamble to the latest mystery to come calling upon Lord Wimsey. There are the requisite features: a dead woman, Agatha Dawson, wealthy and having left a will that might not be a will, but rather a sham (a delirious woman whose nurse insists that there was no possible way of having made a will during the last month, yet oddly there is a document, complete with a witness who claims that dear old Agatha Dawson wanted nothing to do with the signing -- ah, the plot thickens here). Of course, to most of the world, Wimsey is, well, following a whimsey of his own. The woman was after all elderly and in poor health; surely his investigations are misplaced. The doctor (not the one who tended Miss Dawson's death, to be sure, but an earlier doctor, suspicious of Dawson's sole heir, her niece) was accused of having blackened the name of Miss Whittaker, the niece, unnecessarily, particularly as no evidence of mischief had been uncovered. Wimsey with the assistance of Inspector Parker are able to rectify the situation vis-a-vis the doctor, but there is still the mystery. Then, more death. This time the maid. To lose one woman may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two women... (well, you can fill in the rest yourself). Of course I won't spoil it for you; perhaps my tag-team reviewers will do that for you, but I sincerely hope not. Suffice it to say, Wimsey proves himself a consummate actor in which the truth comes out (in London, and in style!). One of the glories of Sayers work is the intricacies of her plots. She tends to get a huge number of people involved (the number of people who seemed to have trouped through the ill woman's bedchamber is in itself surprising, given the era) each with subplots and agenda that nonetheless get neatly resolved in the end. Sayers' development of character (even of the already dead ones!) is done with style and subtlety; while Wimsey is developed over several novels, one doesn't feel him a stranger by reading this one alone. The other characters fit their parts admirably (had Sayers not been a writer, she may well have made a good career as a casting director in Hollywood), in physical and personality attributes. Her descriptions of the milieu, both in town (London) and in the country (the village and surroundings, in this case, of Hampshire, are interesting reading. Sayers is very much the cosmopolitan, and somewhat condescending toward the countryfolk. However, that is not a heavy element, and perhaps can be written off to her attempt to make Wimsey even more the worldly character he turns out to be over the course of her novels. In all, an excellent read, a great diversion, and well worth musing over while sipping tea on a Regency-style sofa in one's dressing gown.