Oh, wait -- Henry has a few things to say (in red, the preferred color for one lawyer telling another what she got wrong):
There is one major problem here. The book refers to the “Property Act 1925.” I cannot find that any such Act existed. There is a “Law of Property Act 1925”, but it does not seem to contain the specific provision on which the book turns. The Law of Property Act 1925 seems to have been one of a bundle of related and interlocking laws on the subject passed that year, and the texts available on the Internet are all up-to-date, meaning that superseded parts, have been deleted, so it is possible that the Property Act 1925 had been entirely repealed and was never worth loading onto the computers, although it seems unlikely they would have two Acts with quite such confusingly similar titles. Bizarrely, the best available text of the Law of Property Act 1925 is on the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute website, because it is apparently still good law in Vanuatu, fka The New Hebrides. Hallelujah! (As will be explained below, Hallelujah “had the pleasant, slightly aquiline features and brown-olive skin of the Polynesian.”)
But first, a hypothetical scenario.
Now, Auntie's a handful. She's got cancer, which is a shame, but she insists that when she dies, you'll get the fortune. Which is only fair, as you're the great-aunts' only living relative. (Well, there's that funny fellow from the West Indies, Reverend Hallelujah Dawson, but he's not legitimate, so who cares.) But then you learn that Parliament (oh, sorry -- did I not say you're English?) is proposing to enact a law that ends this business of finding a living relative -- no matter how remote the relationship -- to inherit when someone dies intestate, meaning without a will.
Oh, bother. Auntie doesn't like wills. She doesn't believe in them -- they upset her, all that "sound mind and body" nonsense. She's still alive and cancer or no cancer, she intends to stay that way. Time enough to think about making a will if Parliament enacts the law. But Auntie's not doing so well, and the doctor brings in another nurse to care for Auntie.
Time to get some legal advice. Hmm. Not good news -- a youngish solicitor in London (well away from the village you and Auntie live in) seems to think that a great-niece might have trouble inheriting under the new law. Back you go to talk -- and if that doesn't work, trick -- Auntie into making a will. No dice, and worse luck, now the two housemaids know the convoluted efforts you're making to get Auntie to sign something with two witnesses, with all three people in the room together. The housemaids may be too stupid to understand the significance, but anyone else will know that you only need two witnesses when it's a will being signed.
And then it's official:
1) Give up and let nature take its course? or
2) Use your nursing training to er, help Auntie along to her heavenly reward? No one will ever know...
Needless to say, in Unnatural Death, Mary Whittaker opts for Path #2. Which is a shame, really, because by the time Lord Peter has figured out what Mary's motive for killing her great-aunt is, Auntie's not the only victim in this story.
Now -- a word of caution. I wanted this on my Kindle, so I did a little jiggery-pokery and got the only e-book version of Unnatural Death going, which is *cough* geo-restricted to the UK. I don't know what's in an American version, but I do know that along with the many delights this book has to offer are some invidious racial slurs and characterizations. This includes a Bad Word that might have meant something less demeaning in England in the 20s than it does now -- but it's hard to read, and it's not just the one time. So, if that's a deal-breaker for you, look for an edited (or Bowdlerized) version. (Ross says the audiobook version(s) tend(s) to clean up such language, but I can neither confirm or deny that.) [Cross reference the current debate about the Bowdlerized version of Huckleberry Finn, who was at least as black as Hallelujah Dawson, and probably a lot blacker.] (Here's Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times on why such Bowdlerization of that particular Bad Word is not a good idea.)
But, that said, this is a wonderful book. The dialogue is so good -- Sayers clearly had an excellent ear -- and so evocative of a time and place. I particularly commend Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson to you. She's a delight from beginning to end. And, as this is the book where she's introduced, there's a wonderful scene where Charles Parker, Lord Peter's friend at Scotland Yard, rather assumes that the woman Lord Peter is taking him to meet -- the woman Lord Peter has installed in a flat in Pimlico -- is, uh, well, let's just say that Miss Climpson comes as a complete surprise.
And we have lawyers! Lots of lawyers. Mr. Murbles, Lord Peter's own solicitor, Mr. Towkington, K.C., and a Mr. Trigg. Towkington's the best, because he explains the motive. The issue is what does the word "issue" mean. Normally, it means the children of, and the children of their children, and so forth ad infinitum, thus roughly equivalent to progeny. And when someone dies intestate, then, yes, there is a provision in the new law for their issue to inherit. But what if they have no issue, meaning no children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren...? Their siblings inherit, and if their siblings are deceased, then their siblings' issue.
Ah, but even if the word "issue" means children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren when it's of the deceased's body, does the new law intend that the deceased's siblings' children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren should all be considered issue? Or -- and here's Mary's problem -- is "issue" limited in that case to the children of the deceased's siblings? If so, Mary doesn't inherit Auntie's estate, and it reverts to the Duchy of Lancaster, which is to say, the Crown.
Here's Towkington's explanation:
'What does the Act say? It says, "to the brothers and sisters of the whole blood and their issue." Now in the absence of any new definition, I should say that the word is here to be construed as before the Act it was construed on intestacy -- in so far, at any rate, as it refers to personal property, which I understand the property in question to be, eh??
[It suddenly occurred to me to Google that exact quotation. I got four hits. All of them were copies of Unnnatural Death on Cyrillic (!) language sites: two in the Ukraine, one in Romania, and one in the Cocos Islands. Hallelujah!]
Back to Mr. Towkington...
'[I]t's like this,' said Mr. Towkington, graciously. 'Before 1837 -- '
'Queen Victoria, I know,' said Peter, intelligently.
'Quite so. At the time when Queen Victoria came to the throne, the word "issue" had no legal meaning - no legal meaning at all.'
'You surprise me!'
'You are too easily surprised,' said Mr. Towkington. 'Many words have no legal meaning. Others have a legal meaning very unlike their ordinary meaning. For example, the word "daffy-down-dilly". It is a criminal libel to call a lawyer a daffy-down-dilly. ha! Yes, I advise you never to do such a thing. No, I certainly advise you never to do it. Then again, words which are quite meaningless in your ordinary conversation may have a meaning in law. For instance, I might say to a young man like yourself, "You wish to leave such-and-such property to so-and-so." And you would very likely reply, "Oh, yes, absolutely" -- meaning nothing in particular by that. But if you were to write in your will, "I leave such-and-such property to so-and-so absolutely," then that word would bear a definite legal meaning, and would condition your bequest in a certain manner, and might even prove an embarrassment and produce results very far from your actual intentions. Eh, ha! You see?'
'Very well. Prior to 1837, the word "issue" meant nothing. A grant "to A. and his issue" merely gave A. a life estate. Ha! But this was altered by the Wills Act of 1837.'
'As far as a will was concerned,' put in Mr. Murbles.
'Precisely. After 1837, in a will, "issue" means "heirs of the body" -- that is to say, "issue ad infinitum". In a deed, on the other hand, "issue" retained its old meaning -- or lack of meaning, eh, ha! You follow?'
'Yes,' said Mr. Murbles, 'and on intestacy of personal property--'
'I am coming to that,' said Mr. Towkington.
'--the word "issue" continued to mean "heirs of the body", and that held good till 1926.'
'Stop!' said Mr. Towkington, 'issue of the child or children of the deceased certainly mean "issue ad infinitum" -- but -- issue of any person not a child for the deceased only meant the child of that person and did not inclue other descendants. And that undoubtedly held good till 1926. And since the new Act contains no statement to the contrary, I think we must presume that it continues to hold good. Ha! Come now! In the case before us, you observe that the claimant is not the child of the deceased nor issue of the child of the deceased; nor is she the child of the deceased's sister. She is merely the grandchild of the deceased sister of the deceased. Accordingly, I think she is debarred from inheriting under the new Act, eh? Ha!'
'I see your point,' said Mr. Murbles.
Clear as mud, eh? Ha!
Personally, I love this stuff, but I'm the first to admit it's not that coherent. When I read Unnatural Death for the first time, decades ago, I probably just skimmed over the legal stuff. (Even then, Property Law bored me to tears.) But now I'm fascinated not so much by the substance as by the presentation. Sayers nails these lawyers. Even allowing for the 80+ year gap and different country, I can hear Towkington's loud, pompous style -- he's the smartest guy in the room (or so he thinks) and he knows it.
By the way, I haven't spoiled anything by telling you that Mary Whittaker is the murderer -- everyone surmises that almost immediately. And if, like me, you read this book years ago, you may recall the method of the murder. But even so this book still works -- I was racing for the end to see what happens next. It's wonderful -- lawyers (and invidious racial slurs) notwithstanding.