Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
DLS: Unnatural Death 
26th-Apr-2003 09:43 pm
ws: hamlet
1st DLS post: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
2nd DLS post: Whose Body?
3rd DLS post: Clouds of Witness

But before I begin, a brief, digressive animadversion. To wit: I hate the HarperCollins paperback editions. The Harper & Row Perennial Library ones are fine, but HarperPaperback decided to reset them or something, and they're (a.) ugly and (b.) prone to stupid typos (esp. when DLS lapses into Greek, which is apparently a language never before encountered by HarperPaperbacks). Mostly, though, they're just ugly. I wouldn't have them if I could find anything else--and in fact I'm only burdened with two of them now, Unnatural Death and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, but we hates them, precious, we does, yessss. Hates them forever, nasty little things.

Okay. I'm done. On to the text.

Spoilers below (including me quoting the last five paragraphs of the book). Mind your head.


I'm going to start at the end, because the end of Unnatural Death is a ghastly mess, and I won't be able to talk coherently about the book until I've got it out of the way.

The two timelines (Peter and Miss Climpson) are very badly intercut; I always have trouble when we go back from Sunday the 26th to Thursday the 23rd at the beginning of Ch. 22, and spend the remainder of the book in a state of slightly puzzled irritation. Moreover, although I am not clever at catching plot holes, there's a dreadful one in UD; Miss Climpson charges Bunter "with a message to his employer slightly more involved and mysterious than her letter" (243) and Bunter doesn't deliver the message. Bunter doesn't mention having seen Miss Climpson at all. This is so very unlike Bunter that I have to put it down to DLS getting tangled up in her own plot. For which I don't entirely blame her, because it's an ugly muddle, but I wish something could have been done about it.

The other weird thing about the ending is, well, the ending. We have the neat summing-up, all the loose ends tidied away, and then Parker gets the phone call that Mary Whittaker has strangled herself.

     "An evil woman if ever there was one," said Parker softly, as they looked at the rigid body, with its swollen face and the deep red ring about the throat.
     Wimsey said nothing. He felt cold and sick. While Parker and the Governor of the prison made the necessary arrangements and discussed the case, he sat hunched unhappily upon his chair. Their voices went on and on interminably. Six o'clock had struck some time before they rose to go. It reminded him of the eight strokes of the clock which announce the running-up of the black and hideous flag.
     As the gate clanged open to let them out, they stepped into a wan and awful darkness. The June day had risen long ago, but only a pale and yellowish gleam lit the half-deserted streets. And it was bitterly cold and raining.
     "What is the matter with the day?" said Wimsey. "Is the world coming to an end?"
     "No," said Parker, "it is the eclipse."
(264)

This is an absolutely brilliant piece of prose. It makes my hair stand up on end. (And it's another example of something we started talking about wrt Clouds of Witness: the significance of weather in Sayers.) But what is it doing at the end of this book? UD has some erratic problems with tone, noticeably around the death of Bertha Gotobed, but nothing in the rest of the book prepares us for this magnificent apocalyptic language, this amazing, borderline-allegorical evocation of despair and dread and futility.

I can fit it to the themes of the book that it's picking up on, sure enough. Clearly it's actualizing Peter's doubt of himself, revealed previously by his reaction to Bertha Gotobed's murder and brought explicitly to the surface in his conversation with Mr. Tredgold; Mary Whittaker herself is like a kind of eclipse. And it does make a demonstration of the issue Parker and Wimsey discuss in Whose Body?: the impossibility of Peter's wish to be consistent in his attitude throughout a case. But at the same time, it doesn't fit. And Sayers isn't Peter; she's writing a novel, not solving a murder. She can be consistent. Now, if this strange sort of disjunct became a regular feature of her books, I'd agree that she was doing it on purpose. But this is the only one in which the tone simply falls off a cliff on the last page. Busman's Honeymoon gets steadily darker and darker as it goes, but that's a beautifully controlled descent. So perhaps it was a not entirely successful experiment. I don't know. But it is an absolutely amazing piece of writing.

Otherwise, Unnatural Death continues some of the same themes of Clouds of Witness: again, the relationships portrayed in the present of the novel are either loveless or painfully one-sided. The perfect, loving relationship, between Clara Whittaker and Agatha Dawson, we see only at very distant second-hand. Mary Whittaker is a kind of gorgon, or, as Peter puts it, "first cousin to a upas tree" (84)--ironically, for a nurse, killing or endangering everyone who comes in close contact with her (Agatha Dawson, Vera Findlater, Hallelujah Dawson, Mr. Trigg, Miss Climpson, Lord Peter, Bertha and Evelyn Gotobed). Her presence in the novel is the opposite of love.

Our sleuths, Parker, Lord Peter, and Miss Climpson, are all themselves without love. This is one of the few books in which Peter's family makes no appearance; neither does Freddy or Colonel Marchbanks or any of the other familiar characters. Miss Climpson is, of course, the archetypal spinster, and in fact Peter's bait-and-switch game with Parker at the beginning seems to be a deliberate exclusion of love from the precincts of the novel. Parker believes he's being taken to meet Peter's mistress, when in fact he's being taken to meet Peter's assistant sleuth. Sex sublimated in detection. (And that, the evidence of Gaudy Night suggests, was entirely deliberate.) The plot itself is founded on the failure of love between family members; Clara and Agatha's "unnatural" relationship is stronger and more loving than any of the "natural" relationships among their various family members--about which we learn in exhaustive detail. The "fruitful affection," as Miss Climpson calls it, "boggling a trifle at the idea" (171)--I do adore Miss Climpson--is markedly unfruitful. Mary Whittaker is the last of the Dawsons and Whittakers (except for Hallelujah's unspecified "many daughters" (141)); the money she killed for ends up going to her first cousin on her mother's side. Clearly the happiest people in the entire story are Clara and Agatha in the days before Clara's stroke--and Miss Climpson, who is invincibly cheerful. Spinsters all.

And I do want to repeat what I said in my first Sayers post: Mary Whittaker's evil nature has nothing to do with her sexual preferences. Clara Whittaker is the most clearly admirable person in the story, and her and Agatha's life together is presented as happy and mutually beneficial, even if not "fruitful." Miss Climpson doesn't approve of Vera Findlater's crush on Mary, but Miss Climpson herself is treated with a certain amount of affectionate disdain by the narrative. And much of Miss Climpson's disapproval comes from that very thorny question of idolatry--and she's proved right. I don't approve of Vera's crush on Mary, either, but that's because Vera is a sentimental idiot, remarkably like Miss Twitterton in Busman's Honeymoon.

Also, for all the ugly racist prejudices floating around the book--the casual references to "niggers" and "Jew boys" give me the creeping crawling horrors (218-20)--as with Sir Reuben in Whose Body?, Hallelujah Dawson is given dignity and a strong measure of sympathy. He comes off much better than the bigoted Miss Timmins, that much is certain.

Aside from the muddled ending, Unnatural Death is a better constructed book than either Whose Body? or Clouds of Witness. It has, for me, a narrative drive which neither of the first two manage. And I'll probably be talking about it more when I get to The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, because I'm seeing a number of ways in which the two books make a diptych.


Next up is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

---
WORKS CITED
Sayers, Dorothy L. Unnatural Death. 1927. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1995.
Comments 
27th-Apr-2003 08:08 am (UTC)
Another example of the "lack of love" in the book is that Dr Carr ends up jilting the fiancee who has stood by him (and being uninterested in the fact that his name has effectively been "cleared").

What about unsympathetic medics as a Sayers theme (more, of course, in relation to the next book?). I mean, we've already had Sir Julian, isn't there an appallingly biased medical report in Clouds which leads to Denver's arrest, and then there's Dr Carr, and the indiscreet nurse who doesn't deliver the baby of the faux Mr Simms-Gaythorpe.
27th-Apr-2003 08:29 am (UTC)
Dammit, I knew there was something I was forgetting. It was Dr. Carr and Nurse Philliter who made me think of the lovelessness theme in this book to begin with, and then I went and forgot to put them in. And they're going to be part of a paritcularly important comparison with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, too. Thank you.

And it does seem like unsympathetic doctors litter the DLS canon., especially in the early books; mostly in the later books they're just irrelevant. Or at least, that's my memory of them. Although there is the very nice (if slightly stuffy and unobservant) doctor in "The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps that Ran."
28th-Apr-2003 05:32 am (UTC)
That ending...yes. It interests me that we don't see much of Peter's reaction to the case's end in BELLONA CLUB. The whole last section is dialogue, and it ends on a (slightly) humorous note. Did she feel she'd said enough about shell shock in the rest of the book?
28th-Apr-2003 11:05 am (UTC)
I think on the casual racism vs individual dignity of portrayal, that's what British racism was/is like, making it so different from US racism as to warrant a different word. The scene in UD where Peter and Parker are talking to Clara Whittaker's old retainers and they mention Hallelujah, and the confusion of people from the East and West Indies and people from Spain all under "blackamoors", then the outright textual confusion in the description of Hallelujah -- he's described in the authorial voice as "Polynesian" looking when he's actually from the Carribean -- all match up with that kind of British racism which is actually xenophobia. A good thing about xenophobia, in so far as it has a good thing, is that it applies to the unknown. Once you get anyone close up and know them, it has to vanish. So the individual dignified treatment, because there they are as individuals close up. In the mass, they remain despised and slightly funny, individually, they have to be people. Even actual genuine racists like Chesterton (as opposed to Sayers reflecting the casual norm of the day) did this with individuals.

The other "good" thing about traditional British xenophobic racism is that it applies to foreigners, all foreigners, it isn't dependant on skin colour or ethnicity so much as accent. Britain is an island, and that xenophobia applies to everyone off that island, the saying "the wogs begin at Calais" is actually a quite accurate summation of pre WWII British racism.

The difference between this and American racism with its huge helping of guilt and close attention to skin colour doesn't need to be emphasised, but it does help in reading literature of other periods to be aware which kind of racism people are displaying.
9th-Nov-2004 06:19 pm (UTC) - Parker's Language
Anonymous
This may be me trying to get DLS off the hook... (I really liked this book.) but I figured Parker's speech was more a class/type stereotype of Parker himself.

Like you said...just creeping horror the first time I read the beach scene. But it ends in him concluding that the magazine had to belong to the attackers, because women are *never* interested in mystery stories.

So I figured it was both a send-up of Sherlocke Holmes and Parker...showing how embarassing the 'deductions' are when made from total ignorance.
12th-Jul-2012 01:45 am (UTC) - Re: Parker's Language
The language is correct for the time period and I don't think DLS would have thought about it that much.

And, as many people have pointed out, the black and Jewish (and lesbian) characters in DLS books generally fare better and are generally better people all around than the ones around them. Mary Whittaker is the exception that I think proves this point.

If you really want to read something horrifying, track down the Camp Fire Girl series of books from the 1900's. Any black person who has the misfortune to run into the author's sights gets all the usual epithets just for being there. Lazy, shiftless, etc. It's sickening. However, it's also correct for proper ladies of the middle class at that time period in the US. Which is also quite sickening. This is the same crowd who voted for Woodrow Wilson in 1912 who then promptly instituted segregation at the federal level among civilian employees, something which had never been present before. Miss "Sadie" Schuster-Slatt is probably related to him in some way...
21st-Jul-2006 06:40 pm (UTC)
Miss Climpson charges Bunter "with a message to his employer slightly more involved and mysterious than her letter" (243) and Bunter doesn't deliver the message.

I don't know if you get comments e-mailed to you, but in case anyone else looks at this for a reference later--

The BBC radio adaptation agrees that this was a plot hole, and has the flat shut up when Miss Climpson leaves her letter (two, actually). Bunter appears to be on his way down to the location of Vera Findlater's death.

(I'm inclined to dislike the convergence of those threads, anyway; it feels a little too neatly dramatic.)

It also completely changes the tone of the ending by having, as the last words, Peter musing about Hallelujah Dawson's family getting the money from the check that cleared. A tough adaptation to do, and I suppose it would work fine for someone not familiar with the book.
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