This review is written with a GPL 4.0 license and the rights contained therein shall supersede all TOS by any and all websites in regards to copying and sharing without proper authorization and permissions. Crossposted at WordPress, Blogspot & Librarything by Bookstooge’s Exalted Permission
Title: Unnatural Death
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Chief Inspector Parker are told about the death, in late 1925, 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 is intrigued in spite of the fact that there is no evidence of any crime (a post-mortem found no sign of foul play), nor any apparent motive (on Miss Dawson’s death her estate did indeed pass, as she had expected and wished, to her great-niece).
Wimsey sends his private investigator, Miss Katharine 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. Wimsey places advertisements in the press asking them to get in touch. A few days later, Bertha is found dead in Epping Forest. On the body is a £5 banknote, originally issued to a Mrs Muriel Forrest who lives in an elegant flat in South Audley Street, Mayfair. Wimsey and Parker visit her. She claims not to remember the banknote, but thinks she may have put it on a horse. Wimsey tricks her into providing her fingerprints on a wineglass. In a drawer he finds a hypodermic syringe with a doctor’s prescription “to be injected when the pain is very severe”.
Evelyn Gotobed tells Wimsey of an episode shortly before the sisters were dismissed in which Miss Whittaker had tried to get them to witness Miss Dawson’s will, without the latter’s knowledge. A mysterious West Indian clergyman named Hallelujah Dawson had also turned up, claiming to be an impecunious distant relative.
Mrs Forrest asks Wimsey to visit her at her flat in London where she clumsily makes advances to him. Wimsey suspects blackmail. He kisses her and realises that she is physically revolted by his caress.
Wimsey discovers a motive for Miss Dawson to be killed before the end of 1925: a new ‘Property Act’ coming into force on 1 January 1926 will change the law of inheritance, resulting in an intestate’s property no longer passing to a closest-relative great-niece but being forfeit to the Crown. Much play is made of a fictionalised uncertainty in the meaning of the word “issue”.
Mary Whittaker – who Miss Climpson has concluded “is not of the marrying sort” – disappears from Leahampton along with Vera Findlater, an impressionable young woman who is besotted with her. Several days later Miss Findlater’s body is found on the downs, apparently killed by a blow to the head. Mary Whittaker has it seems been kidnapped. There are indications that the culprit is a black man, and a distinctive cap found nearby is linked to Hallelujah Dawson. However, a post-mortem finds that Vera Findlater was already dead when she was struck, and Wimsey realises that the whole scene has been faked in order to frame the entirely innocent clergyman. Tyre tracks from Mrs Forrest’s car are found nearby, and Wimsey suspects her and Mary Whittaker of acting in collusion.
Wimsey’s manservant, Bunter, realises that the fingerprints on Mrs Forrest’s wineglass are identical to those on a cheque written by Miss Whittaker. Wimsey at last understands that Muriel Forrest and Mary Whittaker are one and the same person, and that she carried out the murders by injecting air into her victims’ bloodstream with a hypodermic syringe, causing blockage and immediate death through heart failure. Meanwhile Miss Climpson, unable to contact Wimsey, heads to South Audley Street where she is attacked by Mary Whittaker. Wimsey and Parker arrive just in time to save Miss Climpson from becoming the final victim. Whittaker is arrested, and commits suicide in prison.
Much, much, much better than the previous book. No french letters, of any kind! Or any stinking lawyers either!
Of course, Lord Peter screws up and gets a woman killed. Which leads to some serious soul searching on his part. It is easy to forget that Sayers was a lay theologian in her own right but she really delves into some aspects of the moral rights and responsibilities of someone who is not authorized by the Law to investigate crime. Wimsey really shows that he’s not just a bored toff looking for a thrill. He has a sincere desire to see justice done.
It is also interesting to see how crime was investigated about a century ago. The issues they had to deal with (missed communications, travel issues, the press, inter-departmental rivalry, etc) made me realize that while investigation methods might have changed due to technology, people are still exactly the same and act the same then as they did then. As the Teacher of Israel says, there is nothing new under the sun.
With this book, my hope for this series is re-kindled. I tore through it one Saturday too, so I wasn’t dillydallying around.