A Classic of Golden Age Detective Fiction Turns 100

In a 1937 essay, the English writerDorothy L. Sayers explained the genesis of her most famous character and one of crime fiction’s most memorable detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey. “When in a lighthearted manner I set out, 15 years ago, to write the first ‘Lord Peter’ book,” she wrote, “it was with the avowed intention of producing something ‘less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.’”

She would admit in this same essay that “Whose Body?”didn’t quite live up to her lofty expectations when it came out a century ago this month. This was her debut novel, and when Sayers looked back on it 15 years later, after she had published more substantial works like “The Nine Tailors”(1934) and “Gaudy Night” (1935), “Whose Body?” seemed, to her, like frippery. Sayers’s self-assessment does not take into account that the novel is pure pleasure to read, fulfilling a desire for escape — something readers want as much now as they did 100 years ago.

“Whose Body?” was published at a pivotal moment in the life of Dorothy Leigh Sayers. Nearing 30, she had recently started her first real job and was also finally ending an unhappy, protracted relationship with the writer John Cournos, who tried to convince her to sleep with him and embrace his commitment to “free love.” She refused.

Sayers dealt with her emotional and financial instability by deciding to write a novel. She conjured Lord Peter, a gentleman of the highest order and clearly something of a fantasy, aspirational and romantic. Rather than needing to work, Lord Peter was independently wealthy. Instead of being a cautious introvert, he was lively and charming, with a “long, amiable face.”

But like Sayers, Lord Peter possessed considerable intellectual powers, which he needed to solve the double mystery in “Whose Body?” — the murder of a “tall, stout man of about 50” discovered in a bathtub, naked but for a pair of gold pince-nez, and the disappearance of a wealthy financier. Lord Peter, with help from his manservant and a Scotland Yard detective, puzzled out the connections as mystery fiction readers demanded. What elevated Sayers’s debut to the upper ranks of the genre was the quality of her prose and the sense that her sleuth had more emotional heft than he displayed.

When “Whose Body?” was published 100 years ago, in May 1923, the reviews were largely favorable. “The best detective story we have read since we stopped regarding books purely as amusements,” The New York Herald declared. The New York Times judged there to be “no reason why the discerning, but by no means infallible, Lord Peter should not become one of the best-known and best-liked among the many amateur detectives of fiction.”

A New York Times review of “Whose Body?” from May 27, 1923.
Another excerpt from the Times review.

At the time, Sayers was one of relatively few women writing detective fiction. Agatha Christie’s “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” which introduced Hercule Poirot, had appeared three years earlier. While Margery Allingham would go on to publish her debut, “Black’erchief Dick,” not long after “Whose Body?,” she wouldn’t create her own gentleman sleuth, Albert Campion, until 1929 — the same year that Josephine Tey’s first mystery, “The Man in the Queue,” came out. Ngaio Marsh didn’t publish her first novel, “A Man Lay Dead,” until 1934.

An advertisement for “Whose Body?” in The Times by the book publisher Boni & Liveright.

Sayers had the confidence to embark upon Lord Peter’s next adventure, “Clouds of Witness,” before “Whose Body?”was ever published. But her second novel would not be released until 1926, most likely because of the changed circumstances in her life.

After her relationship with Cournos ended, Sayers met a car salesman named Bill White and began a brief relationship that resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. When Sayers told him, White disappeared. The sense of shame she must have felt as an unmarried woman, let alone one with a First Class Honors degree from the University of Oxford and a burgeoning career as a novelist, would have been overwhelming.

She hid the pregnancy from her parents, took a month of sick leave from work to give birth in secret and gave the baby to a cousin to raise. Although Sayers would be a presence in her son’s life after his birth in January 1924, he did not learn the truth until after her death in 1957.

Whatever emotions she buried ended up fully sublimated in the subsequent Lord Peter novels, which, after 1926, emerged in near-annual bursts until Sayers gave up writing detective novels after “Busman’s Honeymoon” in 1937. By then, she felt she had exhausted the format, more interested in human behavior than in mystery plots.

Sayers stopped writing detective fiction to focus on religion and translating Dante’s trilogy into English. But she never strayed far from the mystery world. She was a co-founder of the crime-writer society the Detection Club and indulged a healthy interest in real-life crimes. More important, the genre never strayed far from Sayers, reconfiguring the gentleman detective of her imagination for fresh generations in need of escape, comfort and a desire to vanquish “jiggery-pokery” — a favorite phrase of hers, and one that I’d like to see back in regular circulation.

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