Before the mystery even starts, we know that Lord Peter Wimsey is an eccentric man of particular care. On leaving to begin the investigation he says, “I knew a man once, Parker, who let a world-famous poisoner slip through his fingers because the machine on the Underground took nothing but pennies. There was a queue at the booking office and the man at the barrier stopped him, and while they were arguing about accepting a five-pound note (which was all he had) for a two-penny ride to Baker Street, the criminal had sprung into a Circle train and was next heard of in Constantinople, disguised as an elderly Church of England clergyman touring with his niece.” So from the very beginning, we see Lord Peter as deliberate, thoughtful, but with a not so subtle sense of the ridiculous.
Many mystery series being written today take place in locales of yore, From Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild mysteries set in the 13th Century, to Elizabeth Peters’ Amanda Peabody mysteries set in late 19th century Egypt, to the 1980’s of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone mysteries. Whose Body, the first of the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers, has the advantage of feeling like one of those stories recreating a past time, with the exception that Sayers was actually living in the time she was writing about. In fact, it’s a rather amazing thing that her literature feels so fresh, as if she were writing today and casting back to the 1930’s. How does she do this? First, Lord Peter seems to be a thoroughly modern detective (much in the mode of the recent Sherlock TV series on the BBC) who uses the tools available at the time (rudimentary photography, fingerprints and scientific methods of deduction) in a way that demonstrates he’s on the cutting edge of available technology and miles ahead of Scotland Yard in their application. In the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter uses his monocle as a magnifying glass and his cane for walking, protection (it encases a sword) and of course, scientific measurement.
Next, many of the themes she deals with outside of the mystery are those we feel today. Shell-shock, the early 20th century version of what we now call PTSD, is referred to in relation to not only Lord Peter, but in others and there seem to be rather modern methods (such as psychotherapy) referred to as treatment. Class relations are often part of the plot, especially as Lord Peter seems to be a man somewhat uncomfortable with his station in life. Now, this doesn’t mean he won’t take full advantage of the clothes, the cars and the dining opportunities, but he treats his servant as a friend and seems to find the clubs somewhat of a bore. The almost tender relationship between Bunter and Lord Peter is of particular note. He drinks with his butler/valet and more importantly, asks for and listens to his advice. Not truly the sign of a stuck up aristocrat, but more the sign of someone navigating the best way he can through the life he was given.
Lord Peter’s particularity in his manner of dress suggests a little someone whom today we might call a ‘metrosexual’ concerned with dress and the impression that clothes make. Of course, in his time clothes were a definitive statement of your place in society and not merely an attempt to be fashionable.
I’ve yet to touch on the mystery, which in this first book of the series (as in many of them) almost seems incidental to the characters who have been introduced. Lord Peter, Detective Parker, Bunter, the Duke of Denver and the Dowager Duchess will all be back in later novels. However, it’s Lord Peter who fascinates us and it’s clear by the end that only through his particular brilliance is the mystery solved.