Whose Body? (Peter Wimsey #1) by Dorothy Sayers

At last, I pick up Dorothy Sayers’ first mystery novel and finally learn the Origins of Lord Peter!

…except, this isn’t an origin story like I was expecting. We don’t get to see Lord Peter as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, deciding to become a defender of justice while pretending to be a empty-headed rich playboy (oh man, did anyone else start thinking of Peter Wimsey/Batman slashfic? Maybe Batman builds a time machine and goes back to the 1930’s and he and Peter fight crime together while Alfred and Bunter hang out and trade dry witticisms and then everyone makes out. Give me a couple days, I’ll work on it.) – instead, this is more like the earlier Batman movies, where he’s already running around Gotham punching people in funny outfits and it’s always been that way. There are some references in this book to Peter taking up detective work out of boredom, but when the book starts he’s already solved several important cases and has his method figured out. Boo on Sayers for not giving me the gritty origin story I expected, but that’s okay.

Aside from that quibble, I enjoyed this story pretty well – like most other reviewers, I guessed the culprit pretty quickly, but it’s not Sayers’ fault that I watch so much Law and Order: SVU and have learned to pick out the patterns. This is very obviously a first novel, and her style has improved a lot since this book. It’s not the best in the series, but it’s still a fun, brief detective romp. Which leaves only one thing left to talk about.

RACISM.

In her very thoughtful review of this book, a Goodreads reviewer expressed discomfort with what she saw as anti-Semitic elements present throughout the plot. Having now finished the book, I disagree with this reading, and will try to explain myself without pissing anyone off.

First: an author is not her characters, and just because a character expresses a certain view does not mean that the author shares this view. It’s true that some of the minor characters in this book express anti-Semitic opinion, but I think Sayers is using their prejudiced beliefs to make a point about how Jews were seen by the general population at the time – I don’t think anyone can deny that in the 1920’s, people were still racist as hell.

Secondly, I read the book specifically looking for anti-Semitic statements and…I just don’t see them. Some (not all) characters are prejudiced against Jews, but no one is saying that Jews are evil – if anything, characters just echo commonly accepted misconceptions and stereotypes about Jews, and none of it seems motivated by a particular malice, but by just general ignorance. A prime example of this is Peter’s mother who delivers what the reviewer saw as a lengthy rant against Jews (I think she was referencing Peter’s mother, anyway – the character’s not named in the review, so I apologize if I got it wrong) Here’s some of the Duchess’s dialogue, judge for yourself: “…and I’m sure some Jews are very good people, and personally I’d much rather they believed something, though of course it must be very inconvenient, what with not working on Saturdays and circumcising the poor little babies and everything depending on the new moon and that funny kind of meat they have with such a slang-sounding name, and never being able to have bacon for breakfast. Still, there it was, and it was much better for the girl to marry him if she was really fond of him…”

I don’t see anti-Semitism in that. Peter’s mother doesn’t understand Judaism very well, but there’s nothing particularly unkind in her dialogue – in fact, she’s basically saying, “Yes, Jews are different and I don’t understand their religion at all, but they should be able to marry who they like.” Furthermore, I think that based on what I know of Sayers’ other books, the speech is meant to be a comic display of how little Judaism was understood at the time. I don’t think Peter’s mother is anti-Semitic, and I don’t think the book is, either.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Whose Body? (Peter Wimsey #1) by Dorothy Sayers

  1. I just found your blog through Nymeth’s link–I’m so glad she shared it. Re: Dorothy Sayers, there has been some speculation by biographers that she was anti-Semitic.Probably she was no more so than many of her fellow British citizens at the time; after all, she is a product of her culture/age. She may have been completely unaware of it herself, and simply echoing common opinions. And you are right, mostly those attitudes were based in people not understanding, but that in itself was a very quiet form of “othering”–the very thing that kept many Westerners from acting quickly enough against Hitler. But as you point out in your review of Out of Africa, this is no reason to blame the author. I think we see all this now because we are sensitized to it.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, priscilla. I agree that there are problematic elements to Sayers’s portrayal of Jews in this book, but just as sexism is not the same thing as misogyny, having your characters display common misconceptions about Jews is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. And it’s important to remember that there’s nothing specifically cruel said about Jews by any of the characters in the book (except the bad guys, which I think says quite a lot about how not anti-Semitic Sayers was); instead, characters just prove that they know almost nothing about Jews aside from the stereotypes. You’re right that this “othering” is very problematic, but it’s important to recognize that Sayers is not creating any anti-Semitic messages with this book.

  3. I came upon your blog completely by chance. I’ve been trying to read the Peter Wimsey series for a really long time. I started with Strong Poison and Have his Carcase, and even Bushman’s Holiday (I do hope I’m getting the spellings/ words right in the titles), but I had to drop them all one by one… but they all seemed so verbose at first that I had to give them up. I think in another post, you’ve mentioned Sayers’ habit of quoting obscure/ literary geniuses– that could be one reason I gave them up. But that was two years back; your reviews make me want to pursue her series again, so thanks for that!

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