Saturday, March 11, 2023

Book: Planet of Women

 Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers HarperPaperbacks,  Original copyright 1927

Provenance: The Crazy Book Lady, a used bookstore in Acworth, Georgia. I wanted to pick up a back-up book when I was down there (you readers know what I mean - a book for just in case I finished the book I was reading). The shop is in a small mall off the main road, noted only by a simple sign declaring "Books", and also handles U-Haul rentals. Could not find the next Mick Herron book, and did not feel like another LaCarre, but did stumble across a Sayers that I had not yet read.

Review: Let me digress immediately. I always found the Bogart version of the Big Sleep (1947) interesting for many reasons, and one of them is the power of women in the film. Bogart is Phil Marlowe is at the center, sure, and we also have the old General's two daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers, who throw themselves at Marlowe) but also the chief villainess (Agnes Lowzier, who does not), and Dorothy Malone as the bookstore owner who looks beautiful without her glasses. And a female cabbie (Joy Barlowe) for a short bit. And what struck me at the time was that Bogart/Marlowe just pops into the cab without giving the fact it was driven by a woman a second thought. It is a movie, though with a male lead spends most of his time interacting with women.

And that is the same vibe I got from Unnatural Death. Yes, Sayers did a great women-centric book in Gaudy Night, and some day I may even talk about it. But the plot of Unnatural Death is controlled by its women, and Lord Peter Wimsey and his buddy Inspector Parker are often secondary and reactive to their actions. I fact, most of the men come off as second-best - they are there where their positions of power, banned to women, are needed (doctors, lawyers, law enforcement), but are come off the worse for wear (haughty, pedantic, and/or fools).

Let me lay out the plot in brief. This is the most murder-mystery-like of the Lord Peter books in that it obeys a lot of traditional tropes. By this point in his career Lord Peter has established himself as an effective consulting detective, making mysteries and murder his habit. A discussion of "perfect murders" that no one even considers a crime occurs, boosted by a chance encounter at a restaurant, which puts him on the case. An old woman dies. She has cancer, but her demise is still sudden. She has stated that her Grand-Niece inherits all, but refuses to make a will. And there is enough little weirdnesses around the situation that Lord Peter, with Parker in tow, investigates. 

And part of that investigation is assigning a female operative to the deceased's home town. Miss Climpson is a proper, dedicated, older, single woman with a High Anglican background and a rational mind. Peter puts her in town so she can ask questions that a man would not get proper answers about. And she falls in with the gossipy small-town lift of the community and shows herself to be every proper bit an investigator (by the way, she apparently predates Miss Marples by a couple years, though she is late to the field of Lady Detectives in general). The end of the book  is a cascade of her convincing herself to put herself in harms' way while Wimsey and Parker are still sorting out threads.

And there is a lot of queer-coding going on here. Many of the women have no declared use for men and are pretty happy with that - they are fish without bicycles. And a number of them have better relationships with other women. The elderly deceased had a healthy and active relationship with a suspect's grandmother (who was (coding) an expert horsewoman). Peter's chief suspect leaves town with a younger woman, intent on purchasing a egg farm far away from any of the people they know. The phrase "equal of any man" is invoked a couple times, and always making the male speaker look like a fool. For a book almost a hundred years old, there are lot of signposts out there, and the question arises if there it was as obvious back then as it is now.

The murder itself (and yes, there was an initial murder - if fact, several over the course of the book) ages less well. The method of dispatch is obvious to our modern eyes, since we have seen it played through so many times in popular media since (along with questions of how effective it would actually be in the real world). Wimsey pieces together the clues with glacial slowness, complete with a moment of "Ah! I had forgotten about this one piece of then-public information" that provides a motivation as to why the old woman had to die RIGHT NOW as opposed to letter nature (and cancer) take its course.

All in all, it is Sayers, and as such has a richness and depth of Interwar Britain. In this case, the sudden downturn of the male population in the years after the war, and the challenges and opportunities that presented to women. As always, worthwhile.

More later,