Dorothy L. Sayers Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

ph_0111207114-Sayers.jpg Dorothy L. Sayers. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Dorothy L. Sayers never considered her detective novels and short stories to be truly serious literature, and once Lord Peter Wimsey had provided a substantial income for her, she turned her attention to religious drama, theology, and a translation of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Yet she wrote these popular works with the same thoroughness, commitment to quality, and attention to detail that infuse her more scholarly writings. Her mystery novels set a high standard for writers who followed her—and there have been many. Her plots are carefully constructed, and she was willing to spend months, even years, in researching background details. What gives her works their lasting appeal, however, is not the nature of the crimes or the cleverness of their solutions. Readers return to the novels for the pleasure of savoring Sayers’s wit, her literary allusions, the rich settings, the deftly developed characters, and, above all, her multitalented aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. Blending the conventions of detective fiction with social satire and unobtrusively interweaving serious themes, she fulfilled her goal of making the detective story “once more a novel of manners instead of a pure crossword puzzle.”

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to the twelve detective novels that brought her fame, Dorothy L. Sayers (SAY-uhrz) wrote short stories, poetry, essays, and plays, and distinguished herself as a translator and scholar of medieval French and Italian literature. Although she began her career as a poet, with the Basil Blackwell publishing house bringing out collections of her verse in 1916 and 1918, Sayers primarily wrote fiction from 1920 until the late 1930’s, after which she focused on radio and stage plays and a verse translation of Dante. She also edited a landmark anthology of detective fiction, Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928-1934; also known as The Omnibus of Crime).

Apart from her fiction, the essence of Sayers’s mind and art can be found in The Mind of the Maker (1941), a treatise on aesthetics that is one of the most illuminating inquiries into the creative process ever written; in her essays on Dante; and in two religious dramas, The Zeal of Thy House (pr., pb. 1937), a verse play written for the Canterbury Festival that dramatizes Sayers’s attitude toward work, and The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, a monumental series of radio plays first broadcast amid controversy in 1941-1942. The latter work addressed what Sayers regarded as the most exciting of mysteries: the drama of Christ’s life and death, the drama in which God is both...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

To what tradition of detective stories should Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels be related?

What does Harriet Vane contribute to Lord Peter Wimsey’s career as an amateur detective?

Peter Wimsey’s manservant, Bunter, is a strong recurring character in Sayers’s detective works. How does he contribute to Wimsey’s success?

Sayers argues that, ideally, Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) should be read “straight through” for the story and the verse but agrees that readers cannot go unaided. Why not?

What marks of distinction can one find in Sayers’s translation of Dante?

What medieval works other than The Divine Comedy did Sayers translate?


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Brabazon, James. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. The “authorized” biography based upon Sayers’s private papers, containing an introduction by her only son, Anthony Fleming. Brabazon shows that Sayers’s real desire was to be remembered as an author of poetry and religious dramas and as a translator of Dante.

Brown, Janice. The Seven Deadly Sins in the Work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998. Links Sayers’s literary and religious works by analyzing her representation of the seven deadly sins in her mystery fiction.

Brunsdale, Mitzi. Dorothy L. Sayers: Solving the Mystery of Wickedness. New York: Berg, 1990.

Coomes, David. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life. New York: Lion, 1992. Coomes concentrates on reconciling the author of religious tracts with the detective novelist, thereby providing a portrayal of a more complex Sayers. He draws heavily on her papers at Wheaton College. Brief notes.

Dale, Alzina, ed. Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration. New York: Walker, 1993. Memoirs and essays situating Sayers in the history of detective fiction. Includes a brief biography and annotated bibliography.

Dale, Alzina Stone. Maker and Craftsman: The Story...

(The entire section is 596 words.)