starlady: Peggy in her hat with her back turned under the SSR logo (agent carter)
[personal profile] starlady
Alas, I never did read these books as a child; I imprinted on the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels that Sayers is so devotedly skewering and paying homage to in the first two books. But in times of despair I find myself drawn to murder mysteries, which offer such a reassuring fantasy of justice being done, as well as to other depressing fare. At the rate things are going I'll have finished Jo Walton's Spare Change trilogy before the equinox.

I've been reading Sarah Monette's DLS posts, and they're wonderful even a dozen years on; I would buy a book of Monette's criticism so hard. What interests me in particular is Unnatural Death; Monette quotes the ending of the book in full as follows:

"An evil woman if ever there was one," said Parker softly, as they looked at the rigid body, with its swollen face and the deep red ring about the throat.
   Wimsey said nothing. He felt cold and sick. While Parker and the Governor of the prison made the necessary arrangements and discussed the case, he sat hunched unhappily upon his chair. Their voices went on and on interminably. Six o'clock had struck some time before they rose to go. It reminded him of the eight strokes of the clock which announce the running-up of the black and hideous flag.
   As the gate clanged open to let them out, they stepped into a wan and awful darkness. The June day had risen long ago, but only a pale and yellowish gleam lit the half-deserted streets. And it was bitterly cold and raining.
   "What is the matter with the day?" said Wimsey. "Is the world coming to an end?"
   "No," said Parker, "it is the eclipse." (264)
I fully agree with the themes that Monette mentions that this passage connects to in the novel: Peter's self-doubt, and "the impossibility of Peter's wish to be consistent in his attitude throughout a case." But I think it does fit; writing only a year after Clouds of Witness, which takes place approximately in 1924, Sayers deliberately jumped forward three years in order to fit the last day of the book on the solar eclipse of 29 June 1927. I think there's a reason for this; I think Peter is (metaphorically) either trying to prove the existence of God or setting himself up as God via his efforts to prove that Mary Whittaker is a murderer, and specifically that she murdered Agatha Dawson. He fails to do this; even at the end of the novel, when Whittaker is up on murder and attempted murder charges, she is specifically not accused of Agatha Dawson's death: "If she had stuck to that and left well alone, we could never have proved anything," Parker summarizes. "We can't prove it now, which is why I left it off the charge sheet. I don't think I've ever met a more greedy and heartless murderer" (Chap. 23).

"Sin is in the intention, not the deed," Tredgold tells Peter. "That is the difference between divine law and human law" (Chap. 19). But Peter can't prove either in Mary Whittaker's case, at least not with respect to Agatha Dawson. The conversation between Peter and Parker (geez, these Sayers names; they're so on the nose it's amazing) is key here:

"Well, he couldn't prove anything."
  "I know. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be proved. Look at the scores and scores of murders that have gone unproved and unsuspected til the fool of a murderer went too far and did something silly which blew up the whole show." (Chap. 8)

It's been ten years and more since my serious training in theology ended, but there's been enough theology floating around in the background of the books so far to make this ring the bells labeled "arguments for the existence of God" in the back of my mind. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; Peter figures out the motive and the means for Mary Whittaker's murder of Agatha Dawson, but there is no physical evidence of the crime, and she commits suicide rather than confessing, taking her secrets to the grave.

Were there not so little textual basis, I'd be tempted to read Mary Whittaker, not as an eclipse like Monette says, but as the Devil herself. As it stands, it makes a certain kind of horrid sense that Peter fails, because he isn't God and the existence of God cannot be proved; that takes faith, and while Peter's self-doubt is at least temporarily restored by Tredgold, and possibly as well by his arriving in time to save Miss Climpson (who, in notable contrast to Mary Whittaker, explicitly declares not only that she will commit a sin but then actually does it), there is still that ineffable gap between human and divine law, the absence of evidence, the eclipse that shows that in the midst of light we are in darkness. It is indeed an apocalyptic ending, and one that is simply allowed to be apocalyptic. Peter moves on, and so do we, but like Kierkegaard's knights of faith, we must do so in the sure and certain knowledge that we are all wrong, and believe things will come out right anyway.
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