Short Story Saturday: The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face by Dorothy L. Sayers

English crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers is one of the best-known authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction for her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey. This story included in Lord Peter Views the Body, is one of the best in the collection.

The Mystery

Lord Peter Wimsey is traveling after a Bank Holiday on a train filled with passengers discussing the body of a man discovered on a beach in East Felpham. The brutal crime, a man viciously attacked, murdered and then left with no face, titillates the travelers. They casually discuss motives- ranging from a jealous husband to secret mafia societies from Italy carrying out a contract- with each person promoting wilder and grander ideas. Exhausting motives, the passengers switch to particulars of how the crime was committed, so argue strangeling or knifing, while others favor restraining the man in various ways. It’s a gruesome and long conversation that is difficult for the reader to “watch” but upon reflection, is accurate to how many people discuss real life crimes as entertainment. In breaks, Lord Peter Wimsey, who had been listening to the other people on the train banter about the murder with his theory. That the man was found bathing on the beach by someone who hated him and then killed him in a fit of pure rage using a shard of beach glass or a sharp shell. When the killing was done he walked into the water and washed away any blood on him. He scrambled over the rocks to the road where he took the murdered man’s vehicle and stowed his bicycle in the back of the car and drove the stolen vehicle to where he was staying ate breakfast, ditched the car and then rode his bicycle back to wear he was staying. Lord Peter Wimsey’s fellow travelers are stunned at how easily he accounted for all of the evidence and come to a conclusion about how the crime was committed. Unable to counter his theory his fellow passengers lapse into silence. When Lord Peter leaves the train he is stopped by the only person who did not speak during the whole discussion about the murdered man: Detective-Inspector Winterbottom.

Detective- Inspector Winterbottom takes Lord Peter Wimsey’s card and after the man is identified, as Mr. Plant, Winterbottom begins working the case and is disturbed by how closely the facts are fitting into the theory proffered by Lord Peter Wimsey, Wimsey is following the case unfold in the press and is fascinated by an illuminating portrait of the deceased in the paper. After the police find Mr. Plant’s car in the place described by Lord Peter Wimsey, Detective-Inspector Winterbottom dines with Lord Peter Wimsey and fills in details about Mr. Plant: kept a cottage down in Felpham that served him primarily as a “love-nest” that he visited from time to time while telling his employees that he was taking a motor coach tour. Detective-Inspector Winterbottom suspects that Mr. Plant’s girlfriend who was already involved with an Italian man. When she broke it off with her Italian boyfriend, he laid in wait by Mr. Plant’s favorite bathing pool, strangled him and then cut his face off with a broken bottle from the sea. He then fled the area and is wanted by the police.Lord Peter Wimsey agrees that the man was probably cut with a bottle from the sea but that’s as far as he goes along with the Detective-Inspector.

The next day, Lord Peter Wimsey travels to see Mr. Crowder who worked with Mr. Plant at his art studio as a commercial painter. Mr. Crowder painted a portrait of Mr. Plant at Mr. Plant’s request, but upon it’s completion, Mr. Plant hated it and refused to take it. Hoping to make some money off of the deceased Mr. PLant’s notoriety he has his painting for sale. Lord Peter Wimsey is intrigued to see this painting and is even more surprised that the painting is good– and terrifying. Not just a well-painted picture. It depicts Mr. Plant as a hideous, cruel, evil through the colors and shading. It’s a accurate representation of the soul of Mr. Plant, not just his appearance. Lord Peter Wimsey remarks that he recognizes the brush strokes and asks Mr. Crowder if he had any showings recently in Manchester or Liverpool. Mr. Crowder apprehensively replies that he had shown some seascapes in Manchester. Delighted by his response, Lord Peter Wimsey asks if the painting of Mr. Plant has an owner- after some time to think, Mr. Crowder concludes that he is the owner of the portrait. With that settled, Lord Peter Wimsey asks if he can buy the portrait. With much hesitation, Mr. Crowder agrees to sell it to Lord Peter Wimsey for his art collection. Leaving Mr. Crowder’s Lord Peter Wimsey is convinced that he is the murderer and that Mr. Crowder desperately hated Mr. Plant. Detective-Inspector Winterbottom disagrees and continues to hunt for the missing Italian boyfriend.

It is with these divulging theories that the story flips this genre on it’s head. Both scenarios are played out and both are proved to fit the facts, with one fitting a shade more than the other. When the story ends the solution of the mystery is left to the reader to decide. Lord Peter Wimsey wonders which is the true ending, He believes his solution is correct and knows he could prove it but doesn’t want to deprive the world of a truly gifted artist.

The Verdict

There’s a lot to contemplate in this short story. Firstly, how easily murder is entertainment fodder. With the rise of true crime tv shows, podcasts, and youtube channels devoted to discussing grisly crimes listeners are left to grapple with whether the misery of others is really suitable as entertainment. In this novel, Sayers takes an initial stand, that it is okay to engage in discussion about crimes, if the purpose is to solve the crime. However, when this idea is brought to it inevitable conclusion and Lord Peter solves the crime, but doesn’t bring the criminal to justice, it feels as though her thesis doesn’t really go far enough. A murderer goes free because he’s an exceptional artist and robs the reader of a sense of justice. Upon further reflection what people really want is a sense of justice- that people are punished for their misdeeds- especially in literature because it so rarely happens in real life. Philosophical quandaries of whether art trumps truth and whether as Detective-Inspector Winterbottom expounds not everything is as neat and pat and hangs together like a story. Maybe it’s a mistake to want a story to always satisfy our hunger for justice. It’s art not truth after all.

The two solutions with one being more right than another is a unique take on a murder mystery and is part of a larger conversation that Dorothy L. Sayers was having with other authors at this time- where many writers at the Detection Club would be given the same prompt or story beats and they would each craft a solution. It’s also an exercise in emulation John Dickson Carr who famously would toss out several possible solutions only for the real solution to be even more clever and dastardly. A valiant attempt, but maybe not the most suited to her signature style of crafting an ever tightening noose for the murder under the affable veneer of Lord Peter Wimsey. To that point, it was a good mystery, full of Lord Peter Wimsey effortless charm and his ability to unravel the most baffling of crimes with a little bit of brains.

I wouldn’t read this as your first foray into the Lord Peter Wimsey series but it you are a fan of the series this story is a nice addendum to what you might already know about the character. There’s no larger trappings of Mr. Bunter, Harriet Vane, or Inspector Parker. There are are no points of levity about being the Duke of Denver or Lord Peter Wimsey’s hilarious mother the dowager. It’s a straightforward little mystery that gives you a glimpse of what Lord Peter Wimsey is like without his usual window-dressing, and he’s still a fine amatuer sleuth.

You can find this short story in a few different collections such as Lord Peter Views the Body or Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories. Tell me if you’ve read any of the Lord Peter Wimsey series and which novel is your favorite in the comments below.


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