Dorothy L. Sayers Essay - Critical Essays

Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

In her introduction to Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928-1934), Dorothy L. Sayers writes that the detective story “does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement. . . . It rarely touches the heights and depths of human passion.” It is, she adds,part of the literature of escape, and not of expression. We read tales of domestic unhappiness because that is the kind of thing which happens to us; but when these things gall too close to the sore, we fly to mystery and adventure because they do not, as a rule, happen to us.

Clearly, she cherished no ambition of finding literary immortality in the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey. Nevertheless, she brought to the craft of writing detective fiction a scholar’s mind and a conviction that any work undertaken is worth doing well, qualities that have won acclaim for her as one of the best mystery writers of the twentieth century.

Her biographers have suggested that the impetus for her writing of mystery stories was economic. Still financially dependent on her parents in her late twenties, she began work on Whose Body? in 1921 as one last effort to support herself as a writer. In a letter to her parents, she promised that if this effort were unsuccessful, she would give up her ambitions and take a teaching position—not a career she coveted. Her choice of this genre was a sensible one for her purposes. Mysteries were enormously popular in England and America in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and by 1937, when Lord Peter Wimsey made his last major appearance, her twelve detective novels and numerous short stories had guaranteed her a substantial income for the rest of her life.

Having chosen her form, Sayers entered on her task with diligence, studying the work of the best of her predecessors, particularly Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins. She applied her academic training to the genre, its history, its structures, and its compacts with its readers. Her efforts were so successful that only a few years after the publication of her first novel she was asked to edit a major anthology of detective stories and to write an introduction that is both a short history of the genre and an analysis of its major characteristics.

Sayers’s work is not, on the surface, especially innovative. Particularly in her early work, she used the popular conventions of the form—mysterious methods of murder, amoral villains, and the clever amateur detective in the tradition of C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and E. C. Bentley’s Philip Trent. From the beginning, however, she lifted the quality of the mystery novel. First, as critic and detective novelist Carolyn Heilbrun ( Amanda Cross) notes, “Miss Sayers wrote superbly well.” A reader can open her books to almost any page and find lines that reflect her pleasure in a well-turned phrase. She enjoyed experimenting with different types of styles, even imitating Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) by using letters to tell the story in The Documents in the Case (1930; with Robert Eustace).

Sayers was a skillful creator of plots, adhering firmly to the “fair play” she describes in her introduction to Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror: “The reader must be given every clue—but he must not be told, surely, all the detective’s deductions, lest he should see the solution too far ahead.” Her adherence to this principle is especially clear in her short stories, both those featuring Wimsey and those involving her second amateur detective hero, Montague Egg. Egg, a traveling salesman of wine and spirits, is a master interpreter of the hidden clue and another delightful character, though the stories about him tend to be more formulaic than the Wimsey tales.

Sayer’s full-length novels are unusual in the variety of crimes and solutions they depict. She never fell into a single pattern of plot development, and in fact she argued that a successful mystery writer cannot do that, for each work arises out of a different idea, and each idea demands its own plot: “To get the central idea is one thing: to surround it with a suitable framework of interlocking parts is quite another. . . . idea and plot are two quite different things.” The challenge is to flesh out the idea in a suitable sequence of events and to develop characters in ways that make these events plausible.

The character most crucial to the effectiveness of the mystery novel is, naturally, that of the detective. Sayers developed Lord Peter Wimsey gradually over the fifteen years in which she wrote about him. In his first appearances he is a rather stereotypical figure, comprising elements of Trent, Holmes, and P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, the quintessential “silly-ass-about-town.” In his first case, he greets the discovery of a body in a bathtub, clad only in a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses, with gleeful enthusiasm. Sayers herself might later have considered him too gleeful; as she wrote in her introduction to Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror, “The sprightly amateur must not be sprightly all the time, lest at some point we should be reminded that this is, after all, a question of somebody’s being foully murdered, and that flippancy is indecent.”

At the beginning of his career, Wimsey is distinguished chiefly by superficial attributes—wealth; an aristocratic upbringing; interest in rare books, wine, and music; skill in languages; arcane knowledge in a variety of fields; and the services of the unflappable Bunter. Although the early Wimsey is, in Margaret Hannay’s words, something of a “cardboard detective,” nevertheless there are in him elements that allowed Sayers to “humanize him” in her later works. He is shown in Whose Body? and Unnatural Death (1927) to have moments of self-doubt as he contemplates his responsibility for actions that follow on his intervention into the crimes. His moral sensitivity is also revealed in his sympathetic response to the irritating but understandable war victim George Fentiman in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), who so bitterly resents his dependence on his wife. The later Lord Peter retains the ability to “talk piffle” as a mask to cover his intelligence, but his detecting is now seen not as an amateur’s game but as work in service of truth. His stature is also increased by his work for the Foreign Office, which sends him out to exercise his conversational skills as a diplomat.

Strong Poison

As Sayers acknowledges in her essay “Gaudy Night,” in which she discusses the composition of the novel of the same name, Peter’s growth came largely in response to the creation of Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. Sayers invented Harriet, she confessed, with the idea of marrying him off before he consumed her whole existence. When she came to the end of the novel, however, her plan would not work. “When I looked at the situation I saw that it was in every respect false and degrading; and the puppets had somehow got just so much flesh and blood in them that I could not force them to accept it without shocking myself.” The only solution, she decided, was to make Peter “a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.” In the novels written after 1930, Wimsey becomes wiser, more conscious of the complexities of human feelings, less certain of the boundaries of good and evil. As he becomes a more complex figure, the novels in which he appears begin to cross the border between the whodunit and the novel of manners.

Another major factor in Sayers’s success as a mystery writer was her ability to create authentic, richly detailed settings for her work. “Readers,” she says in “Gaudy Night,”seem to like books which tell them how other people live—any people, advertisers, bell-ringers, women dons, butchers, bakers or candlestick-makers—so long as the detail is full and accurate and the object of the work is not overt propaganda.


(The entire section is 3366 words.)