Almost nobody was surprised when the old lady died. After all, she had incurable cancer and was in tremendous and nearly constant pain, expected to die very soon. The only person who was surprised, it seems, was her doctor, who had expected her to live a few months longer. Although her fortune would pass, on her death, to her grand-niece, there seemed to be absolutely no reason or opportunity for anyone to hurry that death along just a little bit. There was no sign of anything wrong with her death - only the nagging doubt which kept troubling her doctor. And when the story reached the ears of Lord Peter Wimsey, things began to go wrong with a diabolical and troubling plot for murder. For even when Lord Peter had figured out who was doing the killing, he still couldn't figure out how or why. You'll find details in Unnatural Death, a 1927 classic by Dorothy L. Sayers. It's the book that is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
The book and the investigation begin almost by accident. Lord Peter is dining with Detective-Inspector Charles Parker at a restaurant in London’s Soho. A young doctor tells them of a case a few years earlier where a wealthy old woman died quite suddenly. The death certainly seemed natural – she was suffering greatly from cancer, and everyone had expected her to die within a couple of months. The doctor who had been taking care of her, however, was quite surprised at the suddenness of her death – though a careful investigation found nothing suspicious about it.
There are elements in the story that intrigue Lord Peter. He thinks that murder was done – though he can’t tell how. But as he becomes involved in the case, the bodies begin to pile up – all of the victims apparently dying from "natural" heart attacks. As I said, we’ll soon be as certain as Lord Peter that murder is being done – and we’ll have a good idea by whom – but how? And why?
Unnatural Death was the third mystery to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, and I've always liked it for the sheer cleverness of the murder plot. There's a lot going on here beyond just the basic puzzle plot. There are memorable characters. Sayers also tackles a number of issues here, including the question of euthanasia and whether/when it might be justified. But the villain, evident to the reader from pretty early in the book, is quite thoroughly unpleasant and unprincipled - as Wimsey observes at one point, “I don't think I've ever met a more greedy and heartless murderer.”
I strongly recommend Unnatural Death, whether it’s your first time reading it or as a reread – it’s well worth your time.