Plot[ edit ] Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Chief Inspector Parker are told about the death, in late , of an elderly woman named Agatha Dawson who had been suffering from terminal cancer. She was being cared for by Mary Whittaker, her great-niece and a trained nurse. Miss Dawson had an extreme aversion to making a will, believing that Miss Whittaker, her only known relative, would naturally inherit everything. Wimsey sends his private investigator, Miss Alexandra Climpson, to the village of Leahampton to investigate. She discovers that shortly before her death Miss Dawson had dismissed her maids, the sisters Bertha and Evelyn Gotobed.
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Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Only three days later, she is dead. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify.
How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder? The Verdict A marked improvement on its two predecessors, this novel makes Lord Peter a more relatable and human figure and features an interesting case. My Thoughts I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations.
As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all. The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why.
Memory can be a funny thing! The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning.
Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.
Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below.
From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect — the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read — a pretty notable milestone! I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall!
This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.
The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit — an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.
The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.
One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth.
In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.
This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.
The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone.
Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though — she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.
Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments mostly the n-word voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters.
The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that.
Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly. I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters — I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence. Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain.
For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.
The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough. So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.
The sort of inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever if apparently somewhat dubious explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.
He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time. I have to thank Kate CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read — especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories. Nick The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book — always interesting!
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers