This post is an adaptation from my Master’s thesis on the detective story, University of Sydney, 2012.
Dorothy L. Sayers, the the intellectually formidable creatrix of Lord Peter Wimsey, was the most influential detective writer and critic in Britain during the ‘Golden Age’.
She was one of the driving forces behind the Detection Club, the peak body of British detective fiction writers, and organised and contributed to nearly all its round robins. Her selections of stories for the Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror helped to define the canon of detective fiction, while her introductions to those volumes provided the first history of the development of the genre, and treatises about the direction in which it should develop.
She also reviewed detective fiction for the Sunday Times from 1933 to 1935, and her praise could help to make a new writer’s career, including John Dickson Carr and E.R. Punshon’s. Mike Grost rightly calls her ‘‘the Pope of British Golden Age detective fiction”.
To-day, Dorothy L. Sayers, is seen as the writer most responsible for making the detective story respectable, although Sayers herself, like most of her contemporaries, would have given that honour to Freeman, with his rigorously scientific approach.
In a series of articles, Sayers argued that the detective story must move towards the straight novel, becoming “a novel with a detective interest [rather] than a detective-story pure and simple” (Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror: Second Series, 1931). This is not to say that the plot and detection should be abolished, but rather that the work should become more literary.
Sayers recognised several problems with the standard detective story.
First, the detective story’s emphasis on reason, intellect, and ingenuity excluded “life and colour”, and so only appealed to a small proportion of the population. Ideally, the detective story would, through imagination and style, attain universality, appealing to both the intellectual and the common man, as Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or the Victorian novel did in their times (“The Present Status of the Mystery Story”, 1930).
Second, plot, characterisation and theme were not integrated. In many pure detective stories, plot is all, and there is no theme, or else the theme is tacked on; or the setting and characters bear no artistic relation to the plot (“Gaudy Night”, 1937).
Her admirable maxim was that:
To make an artistic unity it is, I feel, essential that the plot should derive from the setting, and that both should form part of the theme. (“Gaudy Night”)
Sayers’ own work demonstrates how a writer of genius could transform and humanise the orthodox detective story. Her work, as Grost argues, falls into an R. Austin Freeman period (1923–30), concerned with scientific murder methods and legal problems, and a Freeman Wills Crofts period (1931–37), concerned with unbreakable alibis, criminal schemes, and backgrounds.
The early works are firmly in the tradition of Freeman. The breakdown of identity and disposal of the body are crucial to Whose Body? (1923) and Unnatural Death (1927); and Unnatural Death, The Documents in the Case (1930), and Strong Poison (1930) concern ingenious poisonings. [See Note 1, at the bottom of the page]
Like Freeman, inventor of the inverted detective story, Sayers believed that the question of ‘How’ was more interesting than that of ‘Who’. She wrote, for instance, reviewing Crofts’ Mystery on Southampton Water (1934) in the Sunday Times:
For the intelligent reader the fascination of seeing an apparently water-tight defence laboriously built up and then scientifically picked to pieces again more than counterbalances the loss of the ‘Who?’ problem; the ‘How?’ problem, of course, remains; but is transferred from the murder itself to the detection. But the majority of detective writers have still preferred to retain the conventional surprise element.
From the early 1930s, Crofts becomes the dominant influence on her work, with an emphasis on unbreakable alibis in The Five Red Herrings (1931), her best formal detective problem, a triumph in the railway timetable and alibi tradition; and Have His Carcase (1932), with one of the most intricate plots of the period. [See Note 2]
Sayers built on Freeman and Crofts’s techniques, but developed the detective story into a novel that could explore serious themes while preserving her predecessors’ intricate detection and intelligent reasoning. Whereas for Crofts and Freeman, plot and detection are ends in themselves, Sayers adapts the plot and detection to serve the purpose of story-telling and theme.
Even in such early works as Whose Body? and Unnatural Death, one is struck by the high spirits, glee, and gusto; the dialogue whizzes with the brilliance of a Rossini comic ensemble, everyone talking ninety to the dozen.
In later works of the 1920s, such as The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) or The Documents in the Case, she preserves such Freemanian devices as the contested will, survivorship, and the scientific murder method, but pays more attention to the dramatic situation and the characters’ psychology than Freeman’s followers did.
Freeman himself may have shown the way. As a Thief in the Night (1928) combines a particularly ingenious poisoning with a psychologically penetrating study of adultery and obsessive love, and preceded Sayers’s Documents in the Case and Strong Poison by a couple of years.
In Bellona Club, Sayers is concerned with the effects of World War I on the British psyche. Many of the characters are damaged by the war or disillusioned. Wimsey suffers from the after-effects of shell-shock; George Fentiman is a nervous wreck, and bitterly resents his wife being the bread-winner; and the murder itself is seen as symptomatic of the general decline in morals.
The Documents in the Case uses the epistolary form (borrowed from Wilkie Collins) to present the characters from different angles, revealing them as much through their attitudes as their actions. Nobody is wholly sympathetic or monstrous. The idealistic murderer makes the mistake of falling in love with a stupid woman for whose emptiness he poisons her husband; the victim’s son is not motivated by justice, but by revenge on the stepmother to whom he is sexually attracted; and the comic spinster, an updated version of Collins’s Miss Clack, is rather pathetic. Sayers neatly and ingeniously combines amateur detection with philosophical discussions about chemistry, so that the scientific clues are brilliantly illuminating. Although a novel, and hence artificial, the work is irradiated by the light of genius which gives it a semblance of life.
These books are character-driven novels whose interest does not lie solely in the plot. Increasingly, however, Sayers wanted to raise the level of the detective story even higher, to integrate plot, character and theme. Anthony Berkeley (whom we will discuss in a later post) had similar ideas, but Sayers is more human and humane. She combines his attention to character, albeit with more sympathy, with H.C. Bailey and G.K. Chesterton’s depth. This is particularly true of Murder Must Advertise (1933) and The Nine Tailors (1934).
Murder Must Advertise uses Bailey’s technique of making the setting a symbol for the central theme: illusion and unreality, disillusionment, envy and dissatisfaction. Sayers (“Gaudy Night”) herself noted that the novel “symbolically oppos[ed] two cardboard worlds—that of the advertiser and the drug-taker”, with Wimsey, who represented “reality”, only appearing in a disguise. Both the advertising industry and the drug traffic exploit human weakness and manipulate people into buying things that may be harmful for them. They do not care for the health of their customers, only in selling their products to as many people as possible, regardless of the consequences. It is, therefore, artistically right that the drug smugglers should use the advertising firm as a cover for their operations. Unlike Bailey, whose characters are archetypal and whose style almost Impressionist, Sayers’ approach is more naturalistic; the people working in the advertising agency—group-managers, copy-writers, and typists—are drawn from Sayers’s own experience.
Similarly, The Nine Tailors, Sayers’s masterpiece, has a mythic power similar to Bailey’s work, but the characters are again drawn from life. The book is deeply religious, concerned with guilt and repentance, divine justice, and restitution. The victim is killed by church bells (traditionally believed to drive demons away), and culminates in a cataclysmic flood, in which the accidental murderer loses his life, and from which the church is the only sanctuary. At the same time, the novel is a return to the nineteenth-century novel of place, depicting an entire Fen Country community, with parsons, squires, farmers, and bell-ringers all drawn naturalistically. Thus the novel recalls both Trollope or Thomas Hardy’s realism, and the religious parable of T.F. Powys’s Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (1927).
Gaudy Night emphasises characterisation and theme over plot; it is “a novel not without detection”, rather than a detective novel. Sayers considered it the book in which she most successfully integrated setting, plot and theme to form a whole (“Gaudy Night”). It is perhaps Sayers’s richest novel, in terms of incident and humour, but is less satisfying as a detective story than the previous two novels. The novel is not so much a mystery (crime already committed, investigators try to work out what happened) as an ongoing sequence of events which the investigators try to fit in to the overall pattern. Mystery and detection are largely subordinated to the central themes of “intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world” (“Gaudy Night”), woman’s place in society, the choice between the celibate intellect and marriage, principle vs. loyalty, the competing needs of duty to the truth and duty to other people, and the importance of balance. Truth, Sayers argues, cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be seen in terms of its context and consequences.
Sayers’ novels have divided critics. Both her contemporaries – among them John Dickson Carr (whom she sponsored into the Detection Club) and Gladys Mitchell, and Dashiell Hammett and Ellery Queen in America – and more recent writers – Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Minette Walters, and Elizabeth George – admired her work. She also earned the approval of mainstream novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Frank Swinnerton.
Others loathed her work, seeing it as pompous and trite, including Raymond Chandler, Julian Symons (who may have had personal reasons for disliking her) and Robert Barnard (among crime writers), and George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Q.D. Leavis (among the literati).
Agatha Christie, for her part, thought that Sayers was “an exceptionally good detective writer and a delightfully witty one”, but preferred the works of the 1920s to the later ones dealing with Wimsey’s “attachment to, and lengthy courtship of, a tiresome young woman called Harriet” (“Detective Writers in England”, CADS 55, 2008).
Sayers’ approach to the detective novel came to dominate detective fiction in Britain, and was practised by many later writers, among them Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, P.D. James, and Reginald Hill.
Note 1: R. Austin Freeman’s influence on Sayers
Sayers’ debt to Freeman is explicit. In Unnatural Death (1927), the false trail left at the scene of the third crime, with foot-marks and tyre-tracks, is apparently inspired by “intensive study of the works of Mr. Austin Freeman”. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), Sayers directly referred to A Silent Witness (1914), and one of her characters remarks: “That fellow Freeman is full of plots about poisonings and wills and survivorship, isn’t he?”
In the 1920s works, the detection is in the physical manner of Freeman, relying on deductions from physical objects rather than understanding how characters behave.
This is particularly evident in her first novel, Whose Body? (1923), which involves pince-nez (like the pair of glasses in The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912), but here used as a red herring); the physical examination of the corpse in Ch. 2 (Sayers originally intended the corpse to be uncircumcised, showing it can’t have been the body of the missing Jewish financier); the identification of the body using medical knowledge in Chapter 10; the exhumation in Ch. 12, and the identification of the body by physical marks (mole, scar, hair) similar to The Eye of Osiris (1911); and the use of fingerprints, threads, hair in the hats, ad photographs of prints and footmarks. The admirable Bunter, with his enthusiasm for photography and fingerprinting, is clearly modelled on Dr. Thorndyke’s assistant Polton.
In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Sayers describes Marsh’s test for arsenic, which recalls similar scenes in both Freeman and John Rhode.
Sayers frequently used the disposal of the body for black comedy. Although it is much more comedic, Whose Body? (1923) is very clearly influenced by Freeman, revolving around the breakdown of identity and the disposal of the body. The central idea is in the blackly comic tradition of The Eye of Osiris: SPOILER substituting the hated victim for a hospital demonstration cadaver, and getting a class of young students to dissect the remains!
Even more outré is the victim in “The Man with the Copper Fingers”, SPOILER who turns his victim into a life-size metal settee in the form of a naked golden woman, anticipating Goldfinger by more than three decades. More prosaically, “The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag” contains the severed head of the Finbury Park murder victim. Both The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention” use the dead body of a man who died of natural causes to try to secure an inheritance by fraud. In “The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach”, a dead Scotsman swallowed several thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds, and left his stomach to his heir; the villains attempt to steal the stomach.
Other stories concern Freeman’s breakdown of identity. Apart from Whose Body?, these include Unnatural Death, SPOILER where Mary Whittaker plays a double rôle as Mrs. Forrest; and “In the Teeth of the Evidence”, SPOILER where the victim is substituted for the dentist’s corpse.
Sayers often used scientific murder schemes, such as ingenious poisonings or lethal applications of chemistry and physics, in the tradition of Freeman and Rhode. The most controversial is found in Unnatural Death: SPOILER an air-bubble injected into the veins to make the victim die of embolism; however, Sayers later discovered that the syringe would have to be enormous. The Documents in the Case (1930) concerns poisoning with muscarine, but combines it with a meditation on science. Strong Poison (1930) is an ingenious poisoning tale and involves another inheritance situation. Although it is used as part of a Croftsian alibi plot, the solution of Have His Carcase (1932) relies on SPOILER haemophilia, a Freemanian scientific idea, and beautifully simple. Several stories are built around scientific ideas, such as SPOILER looking-glass twins in “The Image in the Mirror”, and SPOILER congenital thyroid deficiency in “The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey”. Other stories concern optical illusions similar to those in Freeman’s “Phyllis Annesley’s Peril” and “The Apparition of Burling Court”: “The Queen’s Square” SPOILER is based on an optical illusion similar to those in Freeman’s: a red object under a red light looks white, while ‘The Haunted Policeman’ shows how someone can look through a letter-box into a room that isn’t there (an idea later used in Carr’s Bride of Newgate, 1950).
A few other stories revolve around legal situations, like Freeman’s Eye of Osiris and The Mystery of 31, New Inn. Unnatural Death concerns the new Property Act of January 1926, which affects the inheritance on intestacy. Like A Silent Witness (1914), the plot of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club revolves around survivorship: the inheritance depends on which one of a pair of elderly siblings died first, leading the grandson of one to fake the time of his grandsire’s death. Wills and inheritances also drive the plot in Strong Poison and ‘The Bone of Contention’.
Note 2: Freeman Wills Crofts’ influence on Sayers
The second half of Sayers’s career is much more Croftsian in approach. Many of the novels concern unbreakable alibis.
The Five Red Herrings (1931) is probably the only railway timetables mystery still to be read to-day, and is Sayers’ most Croftsian book, a map and train puzzle, complete with boats and bicycles. Unlike Crofts, Sayers’s approach is lively and inventive, with multiple solutions against various suspects. The murderer’s alibi, as Sayers acknowledges, borrows and improves on J.J. Connington’s Two Tickets Puzzle (1930).
Have His Carcase (1932) is another alibi story, with false alibis constructed around tides and boats, horses, trains, and motorcars. The touch of genius enters when Wimsey destroys ‘cast-iron’ alibis only to discover that they were faked for a time when the murder was not committed, and that all the suspects have completely fool-proof alibis for a time when the murder was apparently committed. Sayers spoofs the unbreakable alibi approach: the murderer in Harriet Vane’s book “was at the moment engaged in committing a crime in Edinburgh, while constructing an ingenious alibi involving a steam-yacht, a wireless time-signal, five clocks and the change from winter to summer time”.
Other alibi stories include “Murder in the Morning”, SPOILER in which the alibi hinges on a clock at a garage (which really shows lighting-up time); “Murder at Pentecost”, which involves SPOILER impersonation; and “Absolutely Elsewhere”, in which SPOILER the murderers’ alibi relies on tampering with a telephone. “One Too Many” is very Croftsian, with crooked businessmen, transport (trains and steamers), and an alibi using train tickets; breakdown of identity SPOILER (Grant and his secretary both play the part of Dr. Schleicher); and a false trail laid to SPOILER make the police think Grant caught the Irish Mail and took a steamer.
Backgrounds and criminal schemes appear in Murder Must Advertise (1933), The Nine Tailors (1934), and Gaudy Night (1935).
Several Sayers stories revolve around criminal schemes, often using a secret code, as in Crofts’s Pit-prop Syndicate (1922), Cheyne Mystery (1926), and Box Office Murders (1929), which concern smuggling and coining. Have His Carcase (1932) uses a Playfair cipher, and credits John Rhode with the idea; Murder Must Advertise (1933) uses the drug traffic and a code based on adverts; and The Nine Tailors (1934) has a code based on bell ringing.
The settings of The Five Red Herrings (1931) (Galloway and Dumfries in Scotland), Murder Must Advertise (the advertising trade), The Nine Tailors (bell-ringing), and Gaudy Night (1935) (Oxford) are, as Grost argues, in the Croftsian Background tradition. However, Sayers’s approach, based as it is on the people, their intellectual life, their customs and manner of speech, is anthropological, unlike the technological process-oriented approach of Crofts.