|Unnatural Death / Dororthy L. Sayers|
New York: HarperTorch, 1995, c1927
Book Three of the Peter Wimsey series, Unnatural Death, was not as successful for me as the first two.
Mostly because of the racist language & content. It was dreadful.
Lord Peter gets drawn into this mystery by chance; he overhears a doctor talking about the case of Agatha Dawson, a sick old woman who died seemingly naturally but although he can't prove it he has doubts.
So Lord Peter sticks his rather identifiable nose in. There is suspicion cast upon Agatha's grandniece, who lived with her and cared for her in her illness. But this niece, unlike Agatha and her former lifelong partner, is not a sweet lady like them but an Evil Lesbian. Every strange thing she does, it seems to be hinted that it's her unnatural tendencies at fault. There is a counterbalance in the way that Agatha's life is presented; the locals just take her as she is and seem phlegmatic about the relationship she had. And Peter himself has many friends and acquaintances among the more Bohemian set.
Even that pales as a problem, though, when we come across both the repeated use of the n word, and the willingness of Lord Peter and the police to allow the tabloids to spread a raging lie about the possibility that a nice young white girl has been murdered and another kidnapped by vague "black men" in order to entrap a killer. It's irresponsible and icky. This is during the 20s, when racist fearmongering led to direct violence against people of colour, especially in the US, and yet this doesn't feature in the lead characters' concerns at all. I know it's a different time, the story needed a red herring etc etc. But as a modern reader this element makes this into a very uncomfortable read that I couldn't just love as much as the first two books in this series.
I don't know why Sayers went in this direction in this novel. The characters who seem to embrace this racist viewpoint are the villians, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant to read now.
It's unfortunate because the story otherwise isn't too bad, and the badinage of Lord Peter and Bunter and some of their cohort is as charming and foppish and clever as usual. But just like one rotten apple, the story is rather spoilt by the rest of it. I can enjoy Lord Peter's development, and his silly chatter, and his sleuthing, but still feel that the storyline lets everyone down somewhat.
So while I still adore the series and the character, I'm not sure this will be one entry into it which I reread often or ever.