Review: Unnatural Death

Unnatural DeathDorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death

While dining out one day, Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker are discussing so-called accidental deaths that might actually be murders. A young doctor overhears them and joins their conversation. He shares the story of a former patient, an elderly woman with cancer who died rather suddenly. She was terminally ill, and no signs of foul play were found on the body, so everyone believed her death was natural; but the doctor was nevertheless suspicious because she had seemed to be improving lately. The woman’s great-niece and presumed heiress was living with her at the time, so she had opportunity, but her motive was questionable because the old lady would die soon enough from natural causes. Lord Peter is intrigued by the case and decides to investigate. He employs Miss Climpson, a chatty but intelligent spinster, to temporarily relocate to the dead woman’s village and do some discreet investigating. Meanwhile, he and Parker search for other suspects, motives, and possible methods of the murder.

After rediscovering Dorothy Sayers earlier this year, I’ve embarked on a project to read all her Lord Peter Wimsey books in publication order. This is book #3 in the series, but if I recall correctly, it can be read as a standalone. I enjoyed this book a lot, but I feel like it’s a very unusual detective story. Despite a high body count, it doesn’t feel very action-packed or plot-driven. The main mystery is not whodunnit, but why and how. One of the biggest clues to the motive is a tiny change in an obscure property statute. Nevertheless, I found the mystery compelling and was eager to solve the complete puzzle of how and why the murder took place. Also, Miss Climpson is delightful; this is her first appearance in the series, but I believe she’ll be a recurring character in future books. She reminds me somewhat of a Jane Austen character — one of the good-hearted chatterboxes, like a more intelligent Miss Bates. I wasn’t completely on board with the characterization of the villain, whose psychology didn’t ring true for me. I doubt this will be my favorite Sayers mystery, but I did enjoy it and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

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