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Old 12-31-2017, 03:13 PM   #1
issybird
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January 2018 Discussion • Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

It's time to talk about Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Published in 1923, Whose Body? introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the great detectives of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

All are welcome to the discussion!

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Old 01-15-2018, 05:52 AM   #2
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I couldn't resist this image, as it's at such odds with the text!

So, what did we think of Whose Body?

Lord Peter is obviously a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, with a dash of the Scarlet Pimpernel in his silly-ass-about-town-demeanor to hide his serious side. I'd add Nancy Drew except she came later; but the way Scotland Yard hops to when Lord Peter say "Jump!" reminds me a lot of the way Nancy Drew would order Chief McGuinness around.
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Old 01-15-2018, 07:49 AM   #3
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I saw that cover too and got a good chuckle. I was starting to wonder if there was going to be a cover that showed the key evidence visible in the bathtub.

A few people already commented on the voting thread that this is not necessarily a good starting place to see the best of Lord Peter. It seemed to be a book of great potential, but never quite make it. Too much happened "off stage", only to be chatted about later by Lord Peter and his friend Mr Parker. And most disappointing of all was the disaster of a wrap-up, with the great long confession over-explaining every detail. A real "first book" mistake of not trusting your readers to have kept up.

I rather liked the preface added to the newer editions. I felt this tongue-in-cheek biography gave a neat synopsis of the character while - more importantly - giving you a good idea what to expect. I found that it let me jump straight into the story and accept Lord Peter for what he was, when otherwise I think I would have been floundering for a while trying to work him out.

I am curious as to whether the characters would have felt like stereotypes back when they were written, or is that only what they've become since that time? But rather likeable/enjoyable stereotypes for the most part, which is why I think the book had so much potential. Certainly there was enough fun in the early part of the book that I'd give a few more books a try to see if Sayers gets better.
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Old 01-15-2018, 08:29 AM   #4
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OK, where to start?

I've never read any Sayers before. I'd heard people praising these books but I'm not a big mystery fan so I might never have read this if not for this club. That said due to the general impression of these books being classics of the genre I was hopeful I'd enjoy it.

On that basis I was slightly disappointed. It was OK but not great. I understand this is not the best of the series though I probably wouldn't have liked to dive in part way through.

This one I think suffers from the criticism that Agatha Christie gets - that the "puzzle" element of the murder is all and that the final solution is overly complicated. Worse than that Sayers indulges in that trope where she has characters say how unbelievable certain aspects of detective novels are.

It's maybe worth a word about Lord Peter Wimsey. I understand that a large part of the appeal of these books is him. If you don't find him charming and funny then you won't get a lot from them. I sort of didn't and then did. There were times early on when I just wanted to slap him. Later I just recognised it as a point where others would find him funny and shrugged. Humour is subjective and has probably changed a lot since 1923.

Speaking of which - this book is horribly anti-semitic, which may have been just the times but if you're sensitive to that then avoid this book. If you can hold your nose until about half way through it becomes less of an issue.

The other attitude-of-its-time I struggled with was a class one. This whole paternalistic aristocracy with servants thing, where Lord Peter is a good egg and always treats "his man" Bunter fairly, is somewhat hard to swallow. The fact that he creates long days with little sleep for Bunter, by the fact of his "hobby" of being a detective is brushed over. And of course we have no idea of Bunter's inner life or even his concerns outside his relationship to Wimsey.

I say this is "of its time" but of course people still quite like this whole thing - see Downton Abbey.

In the end it was the wanting to see how/who dunnit that pulled me through. I guessed correctly on the how early on, the who was more of a surprise.

Another stray observation - did anyone else stumble over who Parker was? I actually skipped the preface in case of spoilers but in skimming over I caught the fact that Parker was a detective with the Police who was also Wimsey's friend. If I hadn't read that I would have been confused about the detective part. When he first appears Wimsey greets him clearly as a friend and he's hoping he's "full of crime" (i.e. has a case for them to investigate) but it's not clear that Parker's a detective. I kept waiting for this to be made clear. Then I went back and double-checked, but still couldn't find any explicit references. For my reading, from the text alone, Parker is a friend who is another amateur detective. I found it odd.

Overall it was a decent read but not an amazing one.
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Old 01-15-2018, 09:07 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by gmw View Post

I rather liked the preface added to the newer editions. I felt this tongue-in-cheek biography gave a neat synopsis of the character while - more importantly - giving you a good idea what to expect. I found that it let me jump straight into the story and accept Lord Peter for what he was, when otherwise I think I would have been floundering for a while trying to work him out.
Funny, I disliked the preface and as I've read all the books and the preface itself before it's not as if I were spoiled, but I thought it gave away too much from later books. I also tend to dislike that kind of retconning on principle; I think an author has a lot more style to let an early book stands on its own merits, warts and all, rather than to try to shore it up and, worse, influence the way a reader reacts/responds to the book.
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Old 01-15-2018, 09:59 AM   #6
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I thought all hat referring to things past wasn't a good idea. Also, the anti-semitism was too much. It didn't need to be.

Quote:
And Levy—who was nobody twenty years ago—romps in and carries off Freke’s girl from under his nose. It isn’t the girl Freke would bother about—it’s having his aristocratic nose put out of joint by a little Jewish nobody.
That just one example. Saysers didn't have to put it that way. She could have left out the word Jewish and it would still work.

Also, I didn't find Lord Peter likeable. And Inspector Sugg is a stereotypical bumbling fool.

And when we get to the divulging who done it, it was rubbish. There was no way we could have known all that before hand. And the details were just over the top.
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Old 01-15-2018, 10:52 AM   #7
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Re: Anti-semitism

So, being the dastardly academic that I am, I was curious about this theme, so I went looking for discussions on the topic.

I landed in a particularly interesting article by Amy Schwartz in Moment magazine. The article details what it calls Sayers' "obsession" with her Jewish characters and their place in her world. This quote struck me particularly:
Quote:
Sayers’s collected letters include a note to her publisher in 1936, answering a question about a proposed French translation [of Whose Body?] and defending herself from the suggestion that the book portrayed Jews in a negative light: “Certainly they may soften the thrusts against the Jews if they like and if there are any. My own opinion is that the only people who were presented in a favourable light were the Jews!”
The author of the article argues that Sayers' relationship with Jewish characters is not due to antisemitism (any more than existed in her society, anyway), but rather due to her affair with a Russian Jew when she was writing Whose Body?

I would like to have seen some footnotes to back up all the author had to say in the article, but it was a fascinating read nonetheless.

NOTE: There are spoilers for later Whimsey mysteries in the article.
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Old 01-15-2018, 11:13 AM   #8
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The blatant anti-semitism was annoying, but hardly worse than the blatant racism we see in other books of the era, including one we'll be discussing next month. Or the blatant anti-feminism in so many. I don't condone it, but have learned to judge by the era, not by that specific problem. (Though I would readily admit that here the anti-semitism is specious, whereas racism is central to Passing.)

This is the first book from Sayers, and it is easily one of the two or three weakest of the Lord Peter books. And yet, even so, the humour of Peter's silly foppishness is very real and a delight, Bunter is already starting to be a force to be reckoned with, and the comparison to Jeeves is unmistakable. The difference here, however, is that unlike Wooster, Peter isn't a twit, though he plays one.

The Dowager Duchess is also a force to be reckoned with, and shows here unflappability and effectiveness here, even as she's a minor character.

One weakness, pointed out earlier here, is that Parker isn't well explained. We know from later books that he's a police inspector.
Spoiler:
and ultimately more, Lord Peter's brother-in-law.
but while the clues are there to explain him, it's not well spelled out.
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Old 01-15-2018, 11:45 AM   #9
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Argh! I'm still in MRBC mode and wasn't expecting this to start until the 20th. Given that I copied the start date from this thread into the selections list thread and IT SAID QUITE CLEARLY HERE that it would start on the 15th, I really have no excuse. DOH! I will claim "New Year's Eve" related forgetfulness for this one I think.

I'll be back in a couple days. You are all welcome to point and laugh at me while I am gone.
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Old 01-15-2018, 01:58 PM   #10
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Point. Point.

Not to worry, Dazrin. It's a quick read. See you shortly.
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Old 01-15-2018, 02:24 PM   #11
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I saw that cover too and got a good chuckle. I was starting to wonder if there was going to be a cover that showed the key evidence visible in the bathtub.

<SNIP>

And most disappointing of all was the disaster of a wrap-up, with the great long confession over-explaining every detail. A real "first book" mistake of not trusting your readers to have kept up.
Quote:
Originally Posted by latepaul View Post

This one I think suffers from the criticism that Agatha Christie gets - that the "puzzle" element of the murder is all and that the final solution is overly complicated. Worse than that Sayers indulges in that trope where she has characters say how unbelievable certain aspects of detective novels are.
I gather that the evidence in the bathtub only made it to the initial US edition; it was later purged as too graphic. It does alter the story a bit; it was different if they could say from the very start that the body was not Sir Reuben.

I think the whole business suffered from too much cleverness and self-consciousness. Starting with the names: the whimsical Lord Peter, the nosy-Parker Parker, the freakish patrician Julian Freke, the hybrid Christine Levy. Then between the long conversations and the letter at the end, whatever happened to show, don't tell? The resolution also suffered from being entirely preposterous, mountaineering experience notwithstanding. But the preposterous is par for the course during the Golden Age. It is a bit of a relief that Sayers managed to avoid the trope where Sir Julian was caught before he committed suicide.
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Old 01-15-2018, 05:24 PM   #12
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I agree with all of the above. I’m away from home and don’t have my notebook with me, but both the references to Jews and the class condescension were unpleasant. The reference to “little Mr Thripp” and his speech with its dropped aitches and his saying “reely” were very grating. On the other hand both Lord Peter and his mother were kind and caring towards old Mrs Thripp - noblesse oblige I suppose. Unpleasant though it is, I believe it to be an accurate reflection of what people thought and said at the time and well after it.

No-one has mentioned the flashback to the Great War, which I think was important for several reasons: it explained why Lord Peter was so highly strung, with his rather forced jollity, and it also told us a lot about the close relationship between him and Bunter.

Apart from her reference to the lower middle class looking like sheeps heads (I think that’s what she said about the jury at the inquest), I liked the Dowager Duchess a lot. She was kind, supportive and very quick on the uptake. I particularly enjoyed her working out what her son had been promising to the American businessman and airily referring to it when Lord Peter eventually arrived.

So, some enjoyment to be had, but a book with many flaws.
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Old 01-15-2018, 06:14 PM   #13
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Thanks for the link to the article, a stranger here. I have just read it and agree it’s very interesting.
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Old 01-15-2018, 06:40 PM   #14
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I thought all hat referring to things past wasn't a good idea. Also, the anti-semitism was too much. It didn't need to be.
Quote:
And Levy—who was nobody twenty years ago—romps in and carries off Freke’s girl from under his nose. It isn’t the girl Freke would bother about—it’s having his aristocratic nose put out of joint by a little Jewish nobody.
That just one example. Saysers didn't have to put it that way. She could have left out the word Jewish and it would still work. [...]
I would argue that Sayers didn't put it that way, her character did - and this can be an important distinction. The quoted snippet is from a monologue by Lord Peter, and in context the "Jewish nobody" phrase can be see as describing how Freke felt about Levy (rather than Lord Peter or the author felt).

I think the phrases of the Dowager Duchess near the end of chapter 3 were more damning, but again these are the words of a character and seemed to me to be a fairly reasonable portrayal of the times. It would have been entirely unrealistic for such a character to show no prejudice at all. There is also implicit sexism and class prejudice throughout the book - it would be odd if there weren't.

The article linked by astrangerhere does provide an interesting perspective, that there may have been a personal motive for the somewhat mixed presentation of the book, but I'm not sure that is necessary.
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Old 01-15-2018, 07:34 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by gmw View Post
I would argue that Sayers didn't put it that way, her character did - and this can be an important distinction. The quoted snippet is from a monologue by Lord Peter, and in context the "Jewish nobody" phrase can be see as describing how Freke felt about Levy (rather than Lord Peter or the author felt).

I think the phrases of the Dowager Duchess near the end of chapter 3 were more damning, but again these are the words of a character and seemed to me to be a fairly reasonable portrayal of the times. It would have been entirely unrealistic for such a character to show no prejudice at all. There is also implicit sexism and class prejudice throughout the book - it would be odd if there weren't.

The article linked by astrangerhere does provide an interesting perspective, that there may have been a personal motive for the somewhat mixed presentation of the book, but I'm not sure that is necessary.
When I first read some of these "Jewish" comments, I did look to see if Sayers is or is not an anti-semite. I found some that that were unsure. I never did find a definitive answer.

Even if it was the character, it was unnecessary as I pointed out. So why be branded an anti-semite if it's not true when you didn't have to have comments like that in your books?

I won't be reading any more of Sayers books because of this. So even if one of her books makes it to the vote and I vote (and it wins), I won't read it.
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