One of the chief pleasures for readers of Dorothy L. Sayers is the companionship of one of fiction’s great creations, Lord Peter Wimsey, that extraordinarily English gentleman, cosmopolite, detective-scholar. Although the Wimsey novels were created primarily to make money, his characterization demonstrates that his creator was a serious, skillful writer. As the novels follow Wimsey elegantly through murder, mayhem, and madness, he grows from an enchanting caricature into a fully realized human being. The solver of mysteries thus becomes increasingly enigmatic himself. Wimsey’s growth parallels Sayers’s artistic development, which is appropriate, since she announced that her books were to be more like mainstream novels than the cardboard world of ordinary detective fiction.
Lord Peter is something of a descendant of P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, and at times he emulates Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but in Wimsey, Sayers essentially created an original. Sayers’s novels integrate elements of earlier detective fiction—especially the grasp of psychological torment typified by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the fine delineation of manners exemplified in Wilkie Collins—with subjects one would expect from a medieval scholar: virtue, corruption, justice, punishment, suffering, redemption, time, and death. The hallmarks of her art—erudition, wit, precision, and moral passion—provoke admiration in some readers and dislike in others.
Sayers’s novels are filled with wordplay that irritates those who cannot decipher it and delights those who can. Her names are wonderful puns (Wimsey, Vane, Freke, de Vine, Snoot, Venables), her dialogue is embedded with literary allusions and double entendres in English, French, and Latin, and her plots are spun from biblical texts and English poetry. Reading a Sayers novel, then, is both a formidable challenge and an endless reward. Hers are among the few detective novels that not only bear rereading, but actually demand it, and Sayers enjoys a readership spanning several generations. To know Sayers’s novels is to know her time and place as well as this brilliant, eccentric, and ebullient artist could make them known. Because of her exquisite language, her skill at delineating character, and her fundamentally serious mind, Sayers’s detective fiction also largely transcends the limits of its time and genre. Certainly this is true of novels such as Strong Poison, The Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon, books that did much toward making the detective novel part of serious English fiction.