Dorothy Sayers 1893–-1957
(Full name Dorothy Leigh Sayers; also wrote under the pseudonym of Johanna Leigh) English novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, dramatist, editor, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism on Sayers's short fiction from 1932 through 2000.
As a short fiction writer, Sayers is known for her stories featuring the aristocratic, erudite detective Lord Peter Wimsey. These popular detective tales established her as one of the major British detective writers in the early twentieth century. Critics praised her innovative plot points and consistent characters, as well as her intention to combine detective fiction and the novel of manners. In 1940 Sayers abandoned detective fiction in favor of her nonfiction religious writing and translations on which she concentrated until her death in 1957.
Sayers was born on June 13, 1893, in Oxford, where her father was headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School. Tutored at home as a child, she mastered French, Latin, and German at an early age. Years later, she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford University, receiving both her bachelor's and master's degrees in 1920, and graduating among the first group of women to be granted degrees by Oxford. After graduation, she held several jobs, including those of French teacher and reader for Blackwell's publishing house. In 1922, Sayers found long-term work as a copywriter for an advertising firm in London. She held this job for nine years while writing several of the Wimsey novels in her spare time. In 1928, five years after the publication of her first detective novel, Whose Body? (1923), Sayers and author Anthony Berkeley founded the London Detection Club, of which she later became president. By 1931, the financial success of Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey series allowed her to quit the advertising job and become a full-time writer. In 1936, she turned to drama, convinced that the stage was the artistic medium best suited for presenting an emerging concern of hers—Christian history and belief—in an understandable, stimulating way to the general public. Throughout her career Sayers wrote numerous thought-provoking articles, essays, and books on a variety of subjects—several of them religious—and many have received considerable critical attention. Sayers dedicated the majority of her last decade to translating the Divina Commedia, which she titled The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine, a project toward which she had been steered by a friend and fellow author Charles Williams. Sayers died in Witham, Essex, in 1957, while still working on the final section of the translation, which was later completed by Barbara Reynolds. The entire work, part of the Penguin Classics series, is recognized for its accomplishment and is still used in many college classrooms today.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Sayers's reputation as a short story writer is based on four collections of short stories: Lord Peter Views the Body (1928); Hangman's Holiday (1933); In the Teeth of the Evidence, and Other Stories (1939), and the posthumous Striding Folly (1972). Several of the stories feature Lord Peter Wimsey, a short, wealthy, aristocratic detective who travels in the best London circles and solves crimes. Critics commend her careful use of details, interesting and consistent characters, and the well-drawn plots of these stories, such as “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention,” where Wimsey locates a missing will and exposes a fraudulent scheme. In “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Time,” Wimsey's expertise in fine wine and English grammar catches a wily jewel thief. Commentators note that the Wimsey stories range from the macabre and grotesque to the light and entertaining. Several of Sayers's detective stories feature the detective-hero Montague Egg, a traveling wine salesman. Less erudite and sophisticated than Wimsey, Egg is a practical and unassuming man who has a talent for solving crime. He proved to be a popular character and a welcome contrast to Wimsey. In “The Poisoned Dow '08,” Egg investigates the murder of one of his customers who was poisoned by a bottle of wine that Egg had sold to him. Using his intuitive nature and understanding of human behavior, he uncovers the real killer. Through scrutiny of a group of suspects on a train, he solves the disappearance of a criminal financier who had assumed another identity in order to escape detection. In addition to the Wimsey and Egg detective stories, Sayers's also wrote several stories without a detective, but involving crimes, unexplained events, and sinister mysteries.
During her lifetime, critical reaction to Sayers's short stories was favorable and her detective fiction ranked amongst the best in British literature. Over time, commentators note that her work received less attention from readers and critics in general; some scholars have derided the inconsistency of her short stories and discern that her novels have received much more attention than her short stories throughout the years. Several commentators have traced the influences on the character of Wimsey, finding parallels between Sayers's aristocratic detective-hero and Eric Bentley's Trent, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and R. Austin Freeman's scientific detective Dr. Thorndyke. In the mid-1970s, the BBC televised versions of five of Sayers's Wimsey mysteries, which introduced her detective to a new generation of readers. As a result, there was an upsurge in popular and critical attention to the Wimsey novels and short stories, which were reissued in paperback editions. Critics consider the Wimsey and Egg stories an integral part of Sayers's oeuvre and praise her achievement in the field of British detective fiction.
Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror [editor] 1928; published in the United States as The Omnibus of Crime, 1929
Lord Peter Views the Body 1928
Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror, second series [editor] 1931; published in the United States as The Second Omnibus of Crime, 1932
Hangman's Holiday 1933
Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror, third series [editor] 1934; published in the United States as The Third Omnibus of Crime, 1935
Tales of Detection 1936
In the Teeth of the Evidence, and Other Stories 1939
Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories 1972
Striding Folly: Including the Three Final Lord Peter Wimsey Stories 1972
Op. I (poetry) 1916
Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (poetry and drama) 1918
Whose Body? (novel) 1923
Clouds of Witness (novel) 1926
Unnatural Death (novel) 1927; published in the United States as The Dawson Pedigree, 1928
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (novel) 1928
The Documents in the Case (novel) 1930
Strong Poison (novel)...
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SOURCE: Sayers, Dorothy. Introduction to The Second Omnibus of Crime, 1932, edited by Dorothy Sayers, pp. 1-16. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1932.
[In the following essay, Sayers elucidates the defining characteristics of the detective story and the virtual disappearance of the detective short story genre.]
Ten years ago, or rather more, a friend and myself, being stranded in London on a wet Sunday with nothing particular to do, went down to one of the great termini, to see if we could find a detective-story to read aloud. I remember that we started with no very high hopes. The book-stall was more likely, we thought, to be stocked with “ordinary novels.” We were lucky. We found Cleveland Moffet's Through the Wall, and we congratulated ourselves. Today we should be surprised if we could not choose between a score or so of detective-novels, all reasonably well written and issued by first-class firms.
Within the last decade, the detective-story has, in fact, sprung into a popularity and a respectability almost alarming to its friends. It is pleasant, of course, to feel oneself respectable and respected, but all privilege carries with it its own responsibilities. Even within the few years which separate this volume of Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror from its elder companion, an increased solemnity has come over both the writers and the critics of...
(The entire section is 6780 words.)
SOURCE: Ohanian, Seta. “Dinner with Dorothy L. Sayers Or ‘As My Whimsey Feeds Me’.” Journal of Popular Culture 13, no. 3 (spring 1980): 434-46.
[In the following essay, Ohanian provides an overview of Sayers's Lord Wimsey stories, asserting that “each tale is a complete experience of the detective process, straightforward, as the medium dictates, and without too many of the ramifications and developments of which Sayers is fond.”]
The laws which govern the writing of detective fiction constitute a rigid canon which cannot be transgressed without endangering the purity of the genre. These commandments, which several writers have not hesitated to define and enumerate for public consumption, are of classical derivation, and it is with an eye toward Aristotle that Jacques Barzun says of detective fiction that “it is an art of symmetry, it seeks the appearance of logical necessity, like classical tragedy, and like tragedy it cherishes the unity of place. …”1 Even more specific is Dorothy L. Sayers, who traces the roots of the ethics of detective fiction directly to the guidelines set down in the Poetics, finding there “a theory of detective fiction so shared, all-embracing and practical that the Poetics remains the finest guide to the writing of such fiction.”2
A paraphrase of the poetics is unnecessary here; Dorothy Sayers has...
(The entire section is 6787 words.)
SOURCE: Durkin, Mary Brian, O. P. “The Stories-Short but Sinister.” In Dorothy L. Sayers, pp. 84-100. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
[In the following essay, Durkin offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Sayers's detective short stories.]
Miss Sayer's first collection of short stories, Lord Peter Views the Body, 1927, features Wimsey in twelve stories.1 Not all are of equal merit. “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question,” “The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag,” and “The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker” are entertaining but slight works. For genuine mystery, original plot, and startling denouement four rank among the best: “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers,” “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention,” “The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba,” and “The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head.”
“The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers” begins in a secluded smoking room of an exclusive club in London where members are exchanging tales one evening. Varden, an actor, tells of a strange experience that occurred in America when he was visiting Loder, a sculptor. Previous visits had been delightful, but on this occasion, despite the fact that his host had repeatedly urged, indeed, had insisted on this visit, Varden was uneasy, for he sensed that his...
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SOURCE: Gaillard, Dawson. “Between the Sea and a Precipice: Sayers's Detective Short Stories.” In Dorothy L. Sayers, pp. 11-24. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981.
[In the following essay, Gaillard traces the character development of Sayers's protagonists Lord Peter Wimsey and Montague Egg.]
The writer of detective fiction, according to Sayers, can turn neither the plot nor the characters loose. Both she and E. C. Bentley contrasted the detective writer's approach with that of a nonformulaic writer, John Galsworthy. He claimed that he sat in a chair, pipe in his mouth, pen in his hand, and waited for his characters to find their way. For the characters in detective fiction, Sayers pointed out, the future is fixed. They must obey the laws of the plot as well as their own. They cannot, she asserted quoting Galsworthy, “kick free of swaddling clothes and their creators.” The detective writer must be very careful, then, in choosing the appropriate character-plot combination. The effort, Bentley said, was so crushing that his title Trent's Last Case was conceived with the intention of never writing another detective novel, an intention, we might add, he did not hold to.
Sayers explained the detective writer's situation. First, one may have an idea for an opening scene, such as the discovery of a body in a bathtub, or an idea for an ingenious way to murder the...
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SOURCE: Aird, Catherine. “It Was the Cat!” In Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale, pp. 79-86. New York: Walker and Company, 1993.
[In the following essay, Aird assesses the achievement of Sayers's detective short stories.]
It may seem a little inappropriate to use a quotation from Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera H.M.S. Pinafore when writing about the short stories of DLS, but members of the genus Felix species domesticus do figure more than somewhat in this particular aspect of her exceptionally wide-reaching oeuvre, reminding us of DLS's fondness for their independent ways.
For various reasons her short stories do not seem to have had the same attention that the rest of her many writings—the full-length detective stories, the theological plays, her work on Dante, and so forth—have attracted: indeed some commentators have been less than enthusiastic about them.
Can they have been cast aside on the grounds of size rather than skill? I think that would be a pity, because if any one aspect of DLS's character is clearly outstanding, it is her sheer competence. Obviously she must have been a firm believer in the aphorism “if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.” Nothing could exemplify this better than her workmanlike approach to the art and craft of the detective short story, not...
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SOURCE: McGregor, Robert Kuhn with Ethan Lewis. “Lord Peter Acquires a Soul.” In Conundrums for the Long Week-End, pp. 81-117. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, McGregor and Lewis deride the stories in Lord Peter Views the Body as inconsistent and argues that they “in no way advance the reader's understanding of the character or of his community.”]
Four published novels, a new contract, replete with commission for both a personal collection of short stories and an edited anthology—Dorothy L. Sayers arrived as a popular author in 1928. The success may have brought some sense of inner security and peace, but it afforded no guarantee against the noise and turmoil integral to getting on with life. The years 1928 and 1929 overflowed with tumult, bringing personal tragedy, household upset, domestic anguish, and critical career choices. Sayers weathered the challenges, but the storms affected her outlook and left her clinging to resignation as a comfort. The storms would change Lord Peter Wimsey as well.
Certainly it was a tumultuous time. News from America on October 29, 1929, terminated whatever hopes Europe might have entertained of returning to real prosperity. The great Wall Street crash plunged the western world into economic depression to be cured only by money spent on rearmament. The long weekend and the good times, such as...
(The entire section is 6099 words.)