100 years of wondering "Whose Body"?
May 22, 2023 11:33 AM   Subscribe

In honor of the 100th birthday of Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body, the NY Times offers an overview. (Link is to archive.org, NY Times direct link is here.
posted by PussKillian (18 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Come discuss it in Fanfare if you are disposed to.
posted by PussKillian at 11:38 AM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

I thought that write-up was weird, because it didn't mention the main way in which Whose Body is really fucking weird. I wouldn't say that Whose Body is an antisemitic book, at least not exactly, but it is completely obsessed with the fact that the missing financier is Jewish. Like half of the book is various people talking about the Jewishness of this missing Jewish man who has gone very Jewishly missing, and have we mentioned that he is Jewish? And here are my opinions about Jewish people, which are relevant because this Jewish guy has gone missing in his special Jewish way. It's extremely distracting! I am certain that Sarah Weinman noticed that, so I guess she didn't think it merits mention, but honestly, I would include a content warning if anyone is considering reading the book. It's an interesting book, and Lord Peter is a great character despite initially being fairly irritating, but I can't say that I exactly enjoyed it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:04 PM on May 22, 2023 [16 favorites]

ArbitraryAndCapricious, I appreciate the warning. I started this book but didn't get very far, and this lets me know I don't need to go back to it.
posted by epj at 12:10 PM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

Like a lot of first books in series, Whose Body? is a weak one, and it's not the one I would tell someone to read if they were only going to try one Wimsey book. But I would also warn them that Sayers can be anti-Semitic, not in a hateful sense but in the snobbish, superior way of the petty bourgeois at the time, although it's still no fun to come across when you were just trying to relax.

I feel like nobody would have respected Sayers today. Imagine getting away with a heroine that's a plain knockoff of yourself, down to "an unhappy, protracted relationship with [a writer] who tried to convince her to sleep with him and embrace his commitment to 'free love.'" This ex is flagrantly killed off, and the author expy goes on to find true love with the impossibly handsome and wealthy detective, after rejecting him enough times to keep the plots moving. And people love it! As they should, too, on the whole. But the nerve! Just putting her whole heart out there like that. Never fails to amaze me.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:23 PM on May 22, 2023 [15 favorites]

It is in the public domain. Here is the Gutenberg link to the book.
posted by vacapinta at 12:32 PM on May 22, 2023 [4 favorites]

I could not marry Peter off to the young woman he had (in the conventional Perseus manner) rescued from death and infamy, because I could find no form of words in which she could accept him without loss of self-respect. I had landed my two chief puppets in a situation where, according to all the conventional rules of detective fiction, they should have had nothing to do but fall into one another’s arms; but they would not do it, and that for a very good reason. When I looked at the situation I saw that it was in every respect false and degrading; and the puppets had somehow got just so much flesh and blood in them that I could not force them to accept it without shocking myself.
So there were only two things to do: one was to leave the thing there, with the problem unresolved; the other, far more delicate and dangerous, was to take Peter away and perform a major operation on him. If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook. And all this would have to be squared somehow or other with such random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots.

posted by PussKillian at 12:54 PM on May 22, 2023 [10 favorites]

> "...the author expy goes on to find true love with the impossibly handsome and wealthy detective"

The most bizarre scholarly introduction to a book I have ever read was one at the beginning of an edition of a book in the Harriet Vane sequence (Gaudy Night, maybe?) that I checked out of the library in the early 90's. Whoever wrote it started going on and on about what a terrible character Harriet Vane was and how she was just the worst and had ruined all the books and it slowly became apparent that whoever had been hired to write the introduction to this book was *insanely jealous* of fictional character Harriet Vane for marrying fictional character Lord Peter Whimsey.

It is one of the rare book introductions I have never forgotten.
posted by kyrademon at 1:10 PM on May 22, 2023 [20 favorites]

In the spirit of lighting a firecracker, covering your ears, and running away as fast as you can, I must ask: given that Whose Body? is in the public domain, how difficult a task would it be to modify it to tone down or remove the antisemitism, and if someone did so, would you read that version? If not, why?
posted by phooky at 1:31 PM on May 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

if someone did so, would you read that version? If not, why?

The effort wouldn't be worth it. As Countess Elena says, it's a weak one. I went back and read a few of her pre-Harriet books recently, including Whose Body and Clouds of Witness, and it's hard to overstate how surprising they are, if your opinion of Sayers is from the later books. Lord Peter is an undeveloped mass of quips solving mysteries that only barely hold the reader's interest. You can--barely--see the skeleton on which Sayers would build the detective everyone remembers. (Although...it's kind of an interesting question, now that you've posed it? How much of the "Why look, there's a Jew in the bathtub!" "Why, but how do you know it's a Jew?" "Allow me to elucidate!" could be scraped off, and still have a working story?)
posted by mittens at 1:45 PM on May 22, 2023 [4 favorites]

"Why look, there's a Jew in the bathtub!" "Why, but how do you know it's a Jew?" "Allow me to elucidate!"

I always thought that was a pretty hilarious joke, actually.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:49 PM on May 22, 2023 [4 favorites]

It may be weak compared to her later books, but the atmospherics of the exhumation scene are just stellar, and very modern.

The vile, raw fog tore your throat and ravaged your eyes. You could not see your feet. You stumbled in your walk over poor men's graves.

The feel of Parker's old trench-coat beneath your fingers was comforting. You had felt it in worse places. You clung on now for fear you should get separated. The dim people moving in front of you were like Brocken spectres.

“Take care, gentlemen,” said a toneless voice out of the yellow darkness, “there's an open grave just hereabouts.”

You bore away to the right, and floundered in a mass of freshly turned clay.

“Hold up, old man,” said Parker.

posted by PussKillian at 2:07 PM on May 22, 2023 [3 favorites]

We've discussed Sayers and antisemitism on here before, so let me repeat my recommendation of Amy E. Schwartz's essay, 'The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers and the Jew who Wasn't There', which has some interesting reflections on Whose Body:
As it turns out, it’s the very first novel in the series—Whose Body?, published in 1923—that holds the key. It is a welter of obsession with Jews.

Of all the books, this is the one that has been charged most with anti-Semitism, even within Sayers’s lifetime. Sayers’s collected letters include a note to her publisher in 1936, answering a question about a proposed French translation 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!”
posted by verstegan at 2:40 PM on May 22, 2023 [8 favorites]

These books are set between World War I and World War II, antisemitism was loud and proud at the time. This is Lord Peter Wimsey (the detective) and a society lady who doesn't want to get involved with Mrs Thipps (the victim's mother). The antisemitic society lady is sure that the dead Jewish man did something terrible to deserve being murdered.
“I am sorry,” she said, “I’m afraid we can’t interfere in any way. This is a very unpleasant business, Mr.— I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name, and we have always found it better not to be mixed up with the police. Of course, if the Thippses are innocent, and I am sure I hope they are, it is very unfortunate for them, but I must say that the circumstances seem to me most suspicious, and to Theophilus too, and I should not like to have it said that we had assisted murderers. We might even be supposed to be accessories. Of course you are young, Mr.—”

“This is Lord Peter Wimsey, my dear,” said Theophilus mildly.

She was unimpressed.

“Ah, yes,” she said, “I believe you are distantly related to my late cousin, the Bishop of Carisbrooke. Poor man! He was always being taken in by impostors; he died without ever learning any better. I imagine you take after him, Lord Peter.”

“I doubt it,” said Lord Peter. “So far as I know he is only a connection, though it’s a wise child that knows its own father. I congratulate you, dear lady, on takin’ after the other side of the family. You’ll forgive my buttin’ in upon you like this in the middle of the night, though, as you say, it’s all in the family, and I’m sure I’m very much obliged to you, and for permittin’ me to admire that awfully fetchin’ thing you’ve got on. Now, don’t you worry, Mr. 52 Appledore. I’m thinkin’ the best thing I can do is to trundle the old lady down to my mother and take her out of your way, otherwise you might be findin’ your Christian feelin’s gettin’ the better of you some fine day, and there’s nothin’ like Christian feelin’s for upsettin’ a man’s domestic comfort. Good-night, sir—good-night, dear lady—it’s simply rippin’ of you to let me drop in like this.”

“Well!” said Mrs. Appledore, as the door closed behind him.
He (in a lot of words, admittedly) tells the society lady that her actions are very unchristian and that he will take care of the victim's mother so that the society lady can continue to lie to herself about her motives.

The Lady's son's name (Theophilus: Lover of God) is a particularly neat bit, I think.
posted by Vatnesine at 3:38 PM on May 22, 2023 [7 favorites]

It’s her weakest book, which doesn’t really make it a weak book exactly.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:42 PM on May 22, 2023 [4 favorites]

I liked this one in terms of mystery content more than most of her others, but precisely because it is noticeably different. One reviewer called it a "grotesque crossword puzzle" which seemed about right to me--it's the one book where it's important to work out the mysteries central trick. The other ones put the human relationships front and center. Which seems to be what she was trying to do from the start!

Antisemitism was so pervasive then I think it fell into the background for me. I read quite a bit from the period in the '90s, and it struck me as a lot like the anti-Japan sentiment that was common at the time, this deep resentment that the wrong people had money and the belief that they couldn't actually enjoy the art and culture they could now afford. Even critics like Karl Kraus, born Jewish, embraced this sort of contempt.

And then you had Chesterton, who believed all that and also that a conspiracy of Jewish bankers were bribing MPs to lead England into a war so they could make more money.
posted by mark k at 5:26 PM on May 22, 2023 [1 favorite]

There are at least two ways that looking back to Sayers is like looking back to Mark Twain. The first is that their accurate reflection of racism/anti-semitism can be painful to the modern reader. The second is that they began by trying to capture dialect on the page, which is painful to the modern reader in a different way, and gave it up as the years went by.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:25 AM on May 23, 2023 [5 favorites]

Anti-semitism is the motive for the murder in Whose Body?. The killer has maintained a lifelong grudge because the young woman he fancied married a Jewish man instead. No-one in the novel says so explicitly, but this semi-concealed motive can't be prevented from coming out in various ways into the text. For example, speaking of the victim's widow, Wimsey's mother says, "Christine Ford, she was then, and I remember so well the dreadful trouble there was about her marrying a Jew". And later, Wimsey says, "I knew a man once who’d been turned down—not too charitably—by a girl he was engaged to. He spoke quite decently about her. I asked what had become of her. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘she married the other fellow.’ And then burst out—couldn’t help himself. ‘Lord, yes!’ he cried. ‘To think of it—jilted for a Scotchman!’" Here the Scottishness in the anecdote parallels Levy's Jewishness in the main plot, but no-one explicitly draws the connection, so the reader is left to infer it.
posted by cyanistes at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2023 [6 favorites]

I just read it. What odd plotting. On page 168 (of the Gutenberg edition), Wimsey figures out whodunit, and more or less tells the reader, but somehow the novel drags on until page 252. And there's not a lot of further plot -- like, the killer doesn't then lead the detective on a merry chase, or come up with an ingenious alibi. There's just a bunch more work pinning down the thing -- but if Wimsey had any sense, he would have just had the killer arrested then and then interviewed the witnesses. And he wasn't even punished for his idiocy.
posted by novalis_dt at 5:05 PM on May 23, 2023

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