|Author||Dorothy L. Sayers|
|Series||Lord Peter Wimsey|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Preceded by||Clouds of Witness|
|Followed by||The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club|
The plot concerns Lord Peter's investigation into the death, three years earlier, of an elderly lady in the last stages of cancer. The lady's death has aroused no suspicion, despite her doctor's dismay at her end coming so quickly, but Wimsey suspects that it may, after all, have been 'unnatural'. The difficulty of discovering the method is compounded by the difficulty of discovering someone with the motive and opportunity to kill.
Wimsey and his friend Parker are conversing in a restaurant when a doctor interrupts to tell them about a death that affected his career. A terminal cancer patient, old and wealthy, died unexpectedly early; the doctor provoked outrage when he queried the cause, and local opinion forced him eventually to move away. Wimsey is moved to investigate.
Wimsey discovers that the patient's great-niece - popular locally - had nursed her through her illness and was the intended heiress. The patient had a horror of contemplating death, however, and refused to listen to entreaties that she must make a will to be sure that her fortune would pass to her great-niece as she wished. A change in the law was imminent and meant that a great-niece would no longer inherit automatically, and the estate would probably pass to the Crown. Killing her great-aunt before the legislation came in allowed the niece to secure the fortune intended for her.
Wimsey begins investigating, using the recurring character Miss Climpson as his intelligence agent, and the great-niece is provoked into covering her trail. She kills a former servant, fakes a kidnap-murder, tries to frame a distant relative with an interest in the Dawson estate, and almost kills Miss Climpson. Lord Peter exposes the great-niece's motive and methods, including the false identity that she has established in London, and she is eventually arrested and imprisoned on remand, where she commits suicide. The doctor from whom Lord Peter originally heard the anecdote has moved on and is not grateful to be vindicated.
Characters in "Unnatural Death"
- Lord Peter Wimsey – protagonist, an aristocratic amateur detective
- Detective-Inspector Charles Parker – Wimsey's friend
- Mervyn Bunter – Wimsey's manservant
- Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson – a gossipy, harmless-seeming spinster employed by Wimsey to make clandestine enquiries
- Miss Agatha Dawson (deceased) – a rich elderly cancer patient who died suddenly 3 years prior to the novel's action
- Miss Mary Whittaker – Miss Dawson's great-niece and heiress
- Dr Carr – Miss Dawson's doctor
- Miss Vera Findlater – a friend and admirer of Miss Whittaker
- Bertha and Evelyn Gotobed – former servants of Miss Dawson
- Rev Hallelujah Dawson – impoverished West Indian clergyman and distant cousin of Miss Dawson
- Mr Murbles – a solicitor and friend of Wimsey
- Mrs Muriel Forrest – an "expensive irregular and mysterious" lady
Literary significance and criticism
"The tale is perhaps a little forced in conception and remote in tone. That is the trouble with all the great masters -- they accustom us to such dazzling performances that when they give us what would seem wonderful coming from other hands, we sniff and act choosy. The mode of compassing death has been carped at, but no one could do anything but rejoice at Miss Climpson and her subterfuges."
"In Unnatural Death, she had invented a murder method that is appropriately dramatic and cunningly ingenious, the injection of an air-bubble with a hypodermic, but not only, in fact, would it require the use of an instrument so large as to be farcical, but Miss Sayers has her bubble put into an artery not a vein. No wonder afterwards she pledged herself 'strictly in future to seeing I never write a book which I know to be careless'."
Themes and treatment
Apart from drawing its ingenious (and medically doubtful) murder method from the author's familiarity with motor engines, gained from her affair with a car mechanic and motor-bike enthusiast, Sayers touches on themes that recur in several of her detective novels. Christianity and Anglican church affairs being one of these (cf The Nine Tailors, the revivalist ex-safebreaker in Strong Poison and the role of the parish priest in a rural community in Busman's Honeymoon, for example), Sayers makes much of the tough High Anglican conscience of her Miss Climpson, of the role of Confession, and its impact on the plot regarding Vera Findlater. The character of the distant cousin, Revd Hallelujah Dawson, offers another angle on this general theme, which was personal to Sayers from her own faith and her background as the daughter of an Anglican parish priest.
Sayers also depicts with understanding and sensitivity a predominantly female society in a small town: this is the decade following the loss of a male generation in World War One. The original victim, Miss Dawson, has shared an unconventional life with another woman in an unusual career, and the killer is another strong-minded, independent woman, despite her presentation as a coldly ruthless and exploitative egoist. Miss Climpson and Wimsey both review the impact of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' relationships between women, and women's aspirations and life choices, at a time when women's roles were more restricted and their equal rights not fully established in law. This theme is central to Gaudy Night, to the character and situation of Harriet Vane, Sayers' fictional alter ego from Strong Poison onwards, and recurs frequently in the detective novels and short stories. Sayers never forgot that she was an independent, educated, self-supporting, professional woman, one of the first women, in 1918, to take her degree from Oxford University. Unnatural Death is particularly interesting regarding Sayers' treatment of this theme.