Friday, July 15, 2011
Unnatural Death: Review
"But if he thought the woman was being murdered--"
"My dear Charles," said the man with the monocle, "it doesn't do for people, especially doctors, to go about 'thinking' things. They may get into frightful trouble. In Pritchard's case, I consider Dr. Paterson did all he reasonably could by refusing a certificate for Mrs. Taylor and sending that uncommonly disquieting letter to the Registrar."
Thus begins the story of Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers. The two friends and partner sleuths, Inspector Charles Parker and Lord Peter Wimsey are at lunch discussing a case where murder was suspected, but not provable and how doctors can get themselves into all sorts of trouble if they stir things up. And just to prove the point a fellow diner overhears them and says he can certainly attest to the truth of it--because it happened to him. There he was just trying to do his duty as he saw it and the village folk turned against him for stirring up a "mare's nest" and causing trouble.
It seems that his elderly patient, Agatha Dawson, suffered from cancer. So, yes, she was ill. But she seemed to be responding well to surgery and treatment, she seemed determined not to die, and her doctor fully expected her to live for several months if not longer. But the wealthy old lady died unexpectedly from no discernible cause. After holding up the funeral in order to do an autopsy which produced no evidence of foul play, the doctor gave up and ascribed the death to "natural causes." But he wasn't happy about the diagnosis....and neither was Lord Peter.
Despite Parker's insistence that there was no case, Lord Peter sets off on the trail. A trail of horrible and senseless murder that leads from the quiet Hampshire village to a fashionable London flat. A trail that includes attempts on the life of a London lawyer, Lord Peter's Miss Climpson, and on Lord Peter himself. There will be rumors of kidnapping and a gang with a "black man" as the leader. There will be not-so-innocent picnics in the British countryside. And at the end is a very cunning criminal mind--determined to have his or her own way and armed with a nearly undetectable method of murder.
This is another wonderful work by Sayers. Her writing is absolutely lovely and I thoroughly enjoy all the quotes she sprinkles throughout her prose. She manages to address the plight of the unmarried woman in post-WWI society. And I think it brilliant how she envisioned the use of these middle-age ladies as the "eyes and ears" of detectives like Lord Peter. Going in to places where policemen would never get straight answers, armed with knitting needles and tea cakes, and ready to "gossip" their way to clues. Miss Climpson is every bit as endearing as Lord Peter's mother. The book is worth it just for her letters to Lord Peter! Sayers also continues to explore Lord Peter's ethical wrestling...as he gets further and further into the tangles of the mystery and more people are hurt or murdered, he begins to question whether he's doing the right thing. He wonders if he had let the murderer get away with shuffling one dying old woman into eternity just a little bit before her time whether the murderer would have been content and not killed anyone else. He has quite an interesting conversation with a priest over the matter. Personally, given the character of the culprit...I think the next time some got in their way, that person would have been polished off too.
Marvelous vintage mystery. And it doesn't grow stale with repeated readings. I can't tell you how many times I've read the Wimsey books. But I always notice something new and I always enjoy the writing. Four stars.