Whose Body?

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Whose Body?
Sayers Whose Body? book cover 1936.jpg
1936 edition by Gollancz
AuthorDorothy L. Sayers
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesLord Peter Wimsey
GenreMystery novel
PublisherT. Fisher Unwin[1]
Publication date
Media typePrint
Followed byClouds of Witness 

Whose Body? is a 1923 mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, in which she introduced the character of Lord Peter Wimsey.


Thipps, an architect, finds a dead body wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez in the bath of his London flat. Lord Peter Wimsey—a nobleman who has recently developed an interest in criminal investigation as a hobby—resolves to investigate the matter privately. Leading the official investigation is Inspector Sugg, who suggests that the body may be that of the famous financier Sir Reuben Levy, who disappeared from his bedroom in mysterious circumstances the night before. Sir Reuben's disappearance is in the hands of Inspector Charles Parker, a friend of Wimsey's. Although the body in the bath superficially resembles that of Sir Reuben, it quickly becomes clear that it is not him, and it appears that the cases may be unconnected. Wimsey joins Parker in his investigation.

Thipps's flat is near a teaching hospital, and Wimsey considers the possibility that the unexpected appearance of a body may have been the result of a joke perpetrated by one of the medical students. However, that is excluded by evidence given at the inquest by the respected surgeon and neurologist Sir Julian Freke, who states that there was no subject missing from his dissecting room.

A prostitute's chance encounter with Levy on the night of his disappearance, on the road leading to the hospital and to Sir Julian Freke's house next door, provides Wimsey with the clue that allows him to link the two cases. Freke maintains that he was discreetly being consulted by Levy about a medical problem, and that Levy left at about 10pm. Freke's manservant reports that Freke was inexplicably taking a bath at about 3 o'clock the following morning, judging from the noise of the cistern.

Wimsey ultimately discovers that Freke murdered Sir Reuben after luring him to his house with the promise of some inside financial information. Freke smuggled the body out onto the roof under cover of the cistern noise, took it into the hospital, and substituted it for that of a pauper who had been donated for dissection by the local workhouse. He then visited Sir Reuben's home to stage his disappearance, returned, carried the pauper's body over the flat roofs of the nearby houses and placed it in Thipps' bath, entering via a bathroom window that had been left open. As a joke, he added a pair of pince-nez that had by chance come into his possession. Returning to the hospital, he prepared Sir Reuben's body for dissection, giving it to his medical students for that purpose the next day.

Freke unsuccessfully attempts to murder both Parker and Wimsey. When it becomes clear that his actions have been discovered, he prepares a written confession of his long-held desire for revenge: many years earlier, he hoped to marry the woman who later became Lady Levy, but she chose Sir Reuben in preference to him. He also intended to substantiate his own theory of mind, in which conscience, a sense of responsibility and so on are merely "surface symptoms" which arise from physical irritation or damage to the tissues of the brain. As he completes the confession the police arrive to arrest him, preventing his suicide just in time.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

In their review of crime novels (revised edn 1989), the US writers Barzun and Taylor call Whose Body? "a stunning first novel that disclosed the advent of a new star in the firmament, and one of the first magnitude. The episode of the bum in the bathtub, the character (and the name) of Sir Julian Freke, the detection, and the possibilities in Peter Wimsey are so many signs of genius about to erupt. Peter alone suffers from fatuousness overdone, a period fault that Sayers soon blotted out".[2]

A. N. Wilson, writing in 1993, noted that "The publisher made [Sayers] tone the story down, but the plot depends on Lord Peter being clever enough to spot that the body, uncircumcised, is not that of a Jew".[3] In the 1923 text, Parker says that the body in the bath could not be Sir Reuben Levy because "Sir Reuben is a pious Jew of pious parents, and the chap in the bath obviously isn't ..."[4] Later versions replaced this with "But as a matter of fact, the man in the bath is no more Sir Reuben Levy than Adolf Beck, poor devil, was John Smith".[5]

In her introduction to Hodder & Stoughton's 2016 reprint, Laura Wilson notes that Wimsey, conceived as a caricature of the gifted amateur sleuth, owes something to PG Wodehouse, whose Bertie Wooster had made his first appearance some years earlier. Sayers said of Wimsey that "at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. ... I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes".[6]

In his 2017 overview of the classic crime genre, Martin Edwards notes that Lord Peter Wimsey began his life as a fantasy figure, created "as a conscious act of escapism by young writer who was short of money and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another".[7]


  1. ^ a b c "British Library Item details". primocat.bl.uk. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  2. ^ Barzun, Jacques, and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  3. ^ Scwartz, Amy E (20 July 2016). "The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers & the Jew Who Wasn't There". Moment. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  4. ^ Quoted in "Whose Body?". A Celebration of Women Writers. Chapter 2 of the first US edition, published by Boni and Liveright,1923
  5. ^ Sayers, Dorothy L (1958). Whose Body?. London: Victor Gollancz. pp. Chapter 2. Retrieved 9 December 2017 – via Project Gutenberg Canada.
  6. ^ Wilson, Laura (2016), introduction to Whose Body?, Hodder & Stoughton reprint
  7. ^ Edwards, Martin (2017). The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. London: The British Library. p. 52. ISBN 978 0 7123 5696 1.

External links[edit]