Saturday, September 1, 2018

Unnatural Death - Dorothy L. Sayers

After being so disappointed by 'Five Red Herrings' I've been thinking about Sayers quite a lot, and realised when I saw it in my local Waterstones that I didn't know 'Unnatural Death' at all. I was a little bit put off by mentions of racism in some of the Amazon reviews, but thought that on the whole it was as good a place as any to continue reassessing how I feel about her from.

The introduction by Minette Walters is a real bonus with this edition. She picks up on the themes of casual racism, and female homosexuality that run through the book. I don't share her optimistic view that Sayers "...leaves us with little sense that she had any sympathy for the prevailing prejudice against blacks..."

It's a difficult question to judge because any reference now to Jew boys or n*****s does indeed make me cringe in just the way Walters warns. I guess these would have been prejudices that the majority of Sayers readers shared and it may be that she's playing on that to make her red herrings more plausible, but in the end there's no sense that she particularly disapproves of these attitudes either, especially in the way she has her characters talk about Jews. I don't think it's a bad thing to be reminded of how ugly attitudes were in the 1920's but it does affect how I view Sayers.

Her attitude to lesbian relationships is far more interesting. In my experience of popular middle brow fiction from the twenties through to the fifties there's a surprising amount of acceptance for women in same sex relationships, it's not an acceptance extended towards men. It's also noticible that these women are generally a bit older, and I'm guessing that this tolerance is based on the lack of men to go around. These relationships are essentially unthreatening to the status quo.

Its noticible here for example that an older pair of women who had lived together, bred horses, and made a tidy fortune out of it are tacitly approved of, but when a character in her 30's looks to be encouraging the affections of a girl in her 20's it's frowned upon (though to be fair the older woman in that scenario is the main suspect, so it is an undesirable attachment). Nonetheless it's an interesting insight into what might and might not have been considered okay.

As for the plot - this is a much more enjoyable book than 'Five Red Herrings' to read, and reminded me why I used to like Sayers so much. Lord Peter hasn't quite yet evolved into the perfect man and is arguably better for his imperfections. The plot is less concerned by who, more with how, the how is ingenious and convincing (apparently it might not work, but the theory is sound). Miss Climpson is introduced and is rather marvellous, the body count is extravagant which adds to the tension, and there are lots of references to books I know - which is always fun.


  1. I love Miss Climpson! I think that she and Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver should open up an agency together.

    1. I love her too. It's an intriguing thought to wonder what sort of book Sayers might have written if she'd had Miss Climpson as a main character, instead of Lord Peter.

  2. Only a pompous ass would assess Sayer's degree of racism by reading this book. It would have ruined the book had she taught her readers a moral lesson on the disgrace of racism.