Dorothy Sayers Essay - Critical Essays

Sayers, Dorothy


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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) 1930

The Five Red Herrings (novel) 1931; published in the United States as Suspicious Characters, 1931

Have His Carcase (novel) 1932

Murder Must Advertise (novel) 1933

The Nine Tailors: Changes Rung on an Old Theme in Two Short Touches and Two Full Peals (novel) 1934

Gaudy Night (novel) 1935

Busman's Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions [with Muriel St. Claire Byrne] (drama) 1936

Busman's Honeymoon (novel) 1937

The Zeal of Thy House (religious drama) 1937

The Devil to Pay; Being the Famous History of John Faustus, the Conjurer of Wittenberg in Germany; How He Sold His Immortal Soul to the Enemy of Mankind, and Was Served XXIV Years by Mephistopheles, and Obtained Helen of Troy to His Paramour, with Many Other Marvels; And How God Dealth with Him at the Last (drama) 1939

Begin Here (essays) 1940

The Man Born to Be King (religious dramas) 1941

The Mind of the Maker (religious essay) 1941

The Just Vengeance (religious drama) 1946

Unpopular Opinions (essays) 1946

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Hell [translator] (poetry) 1949

Creed or Chaos? (essays) 1949

The Emperor Constantine (religious drama) 1951

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Purgatory [translator] (poetry) 1955

The Song of Roland [translator] (poetry) 1957

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Paradise [translator] (poetry) 1963

Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (essays) 1969; also published as The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays, 1978

Are Women Human? (essays) 1971

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1899-1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist (letters) 1996

Thrones, Dominations [with Jill Paton] (novel) 1998


Dorothy Sayers (essay date 1932)

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 detective-fiction. Mystery-mongering has become self-conscious; monographs and critical studies are appearing. Here and there a really advanced and intelligent reviewer will even make a distinction between the detective-story proper and the “blood”; although his efforts are usually frustrated by the caption-artist, who contrives to lump together a mathematical problem by Freeman Wills Crofts, a curious study of murderous psychology by C. S. Forester, a spy-story by “Sapper,” and a book about Chicago gunmen by Edgar Wallace, under the generic title: “Four Holiday Thrillers for Murder Fans.”

Up to a point this serious approach is all to the good. The literary technique of the detective-story has improved out of all knowledge. To-day, when I hear somebody say that he never reads detective-stories “because they are so abominably written,” I know that he has simply not been trying, and is probably basing a generalisation on some remark made by Mr. Gladstone in 1882. Here and there a writer, otherwise careful and conscientious, still clings to the old clichés: the clues are “examined with meticulous care,” the case is still “one of the most baffling and sinister that Detective Jones had ever investigated,” the criminal still “slips through the meshes of the police-net,” the discoverer of the corpse is still “stunned by the shock of this horror,” and while our old friend the “blunt instrument” is now seldom mentioned except within the inverted commas of implied ridicule, our yet older friend the “sickening thud” still occasionally makes its solemn and melodramatic appearance. But actual bad grammar and bad English are becoming rare in the serious detective-story; the worst fault of style is now mere flatness and lack of distinction, while in many of the more modern tales there is a genuine attempt to create real atmosphere. Occasionally this results in over-writing or, what is still more dangerous to the detective-story, in elaborately “clever” writing, but, in spite of failures here and there, it is evident that there is a genuine eagerness to bring the detective-story into line with the traditions of the English novel and to make it increasingly a real part of literature.

A year or two ago, it was confidently predicted that the detective-story was going to slump heavily. It was pointed out that all the possible combinations and permutations would shortly be exhausted. This point of view was rather strengthened than otherwise by the appearance of a number of critical studies in which the genre was analytically examined. It is painfully true that, generally speaking, things are not analysed until they are dead, and the friends of the detective-story began to feel that perhaps this sudden critical awareness was merely a symptom of approaching decay.

So far, however, publishers' sales do not support this rather depressing theory. In spite of unfavorable world-conditions, they show, in this country at any rate, a solid and satisfying steadiness, and this is a healthy sign. Setting aside that hardy perennial, the book-stall shocker, which is skimmed through and left in the hotel, there is a “firm demand” for the detective-mystery of the more rational type, the figures of whose sales vary little from month to month. Authors of established reputation are able to go quietly on, perfecting themselves in the manner expected of them, without being obliged to produce at too quick a rate in order to take advantage of a fleeting fashion.

It may be said that this circumstance tends to the production of the machine-made story. That is, of course, true to a certain extent. The detective-story, however, suffers less than most from being produced in this practical and unromantic manner. It is none the better for being thrown off at a white heat. In fact, it cannot be so produced. The central idea may be the result of inspiration, but the details must be worked out in a mood of calm and almost scholarly leisure. To get the central idea is one thing: to surround it with a suitable framework of interlocking parts is quite another. To judge by the questions asked from time to time of mystery-novelists about their methods of work, it is not always realised that idea and plot are two quite different things. Frequently a story with a brilliant central idea is ruined by failure in plot-construction, and it is here that over-production is apt to have fatal effects upon a writer's work. Perhaps a brief outline of the way in which the average detective-novel is put together may be of interest, and may help to throw a little light forward upon the future possibilities in store for the detective-story.

The central idea, as a rule, is the first thing that presents itself. It may be a new method of killing somebody; it may be an ingenious method of constructing an alibi, or outwitting the law; it may merely be the fascinating mental picture of a corpse found in an odd situation. For example, in Haydn Talbot's It is the Law, the central idea is that a person who has once been wrongly condemned to lifelong penal servitude for the murder of a certain man (afterwards discovered to be still alive), comes out of prison and murders the real man with perfect impunity, relying on the fact that he cannot legally suffer twice for the same offence.1 In John Rhode's The Davison Case, a somewhat similar legal point is exploited: there, the murderer kills a man by method A, leaving a set of false clues to prove that he murdered him by method B. He is tried on the charge, the false clues are exploded according to plan, and he is acquitted. Subsequently the detective discovers the method by which the crime was really committed, but the murderer is safe, being able to plead autrefois acquit. In one of my own books, Unnatural Death (which I mention only on the grounds that I know better than anybody how it came to be written) the central idea was the medical fact that it would be possible to kill someone by injecting a bubble of air into an important vein, while in my first book, Whose Body? I rather rashly started with the entrancing situation of a naked dead body planted in an innocent person's bath. In Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the central idea must, I think, have presented itself thus: We have had murders by this and that Unlikely Person and even by the detective himself; now how about a murder by the unlikeliest person of all—by the harmless Watson who tells the story?2 With Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts the central idea is usually a new and ingenious kind of alibi, as, for example, in Sir John Magill's Last Journey, though in, for instance, The Box-Office Murders the story probably started from the invention of a bright and novel system of uttering forged coins.

The “idea,” whatever it is, usually presents itself in a flash of insight. It may be suggested by a conversation with a doctor or lawyer, or by the account of a curious case in the newspaper columns. For a few days the mystery-monger goes about wrapped in a happy glow of murderous enthusiasm. Then he has to sit down, with more or less reluctance, to do a good deal of solid thinking. It is imperative that he should not be forced by the exigencies of his publisher's lists to start writing at once. He has still to construct the plot.

The idea usually helps to some extent in determining the outline of the plot and the characters. If the idea involves the use of some obscure poison obtainable only by a medical man or chemist, the murderer must either be a doctor or chemist, or have access to a surgery or hospital or chemist's shop; if the body has to be discovered floating in mid-Atlantic, some kind of ship or boat, or aeroplane, must be introduced to bring it there; if some legal point about the succession of an inheritance is involved, a suitable family must be brought into being to account for the circumstances of the inheritance. This seems obvious, but it is just here that the great difficulty of being plausible makes itself felt. If the work is scamped at this point, there will be nasty gaps in the continuity of the story, which can only be filled up by wresting something out of shape. That something, I am sorry to say, is usually the psychology of the characters. Human nature is so odd and various that it is tempting to make the characters behave in obliging accordance with the exigencies of the plot. Nevertheless, too much improbability is fatal. It irritates the reader to find himself asking: “But why did Algernon behave like a boob? Why, when he found the bloodstained dagger in his left-hand boot, did he not take it to the police, instead of burying it in the garden and catching the next train to Sheffield?” If the answer is that Algernon was afraid of being suspected, the reader mutters sourly that Algernon might have known better; if, that Algernon suspected his own best girl, the reader replies by damning this imbecile love-interest; if, on the other hand, Algernon's conduct is dictated by the silly vanity of wanting to do all the detecting himself, the reader's suffering is still more acute; every time the police detective comes along he feels he wants to take him by the arm and say, “Look here, old man—that dagger, you know—that mutt Algernon took it—it isn't fair to treat you like this.” Mr. Temple-Ellis, in The Cauldron Bubbles, takes an even more exasperating way out of the difficulty. His hero, who, at half-a-dozen points during the story, might have cleared up the whole imbroglio, and brought the book to a premature close by informing the police and remaining quietly at home, persists in getting into every kind of unnecessary danger, merely remarking on each occasion, “I know that I ought to have done thus-and-thus, but some impulse which I cannot explain prompted me to do the exact opposite.” Such behaviour is mere perversity and a determination to make the plot occur in the teeth of all commonsense.

Yet the plot must occur as planned. That is where the detective-writer has a much more difficult task with his psychology than the author of the “straight” novel. He cannot afford to follow Mr. Galsworthy's plan of letting his characters “kick free of swaddling clothes and their creators.” Many a hard-working mystery-monger must have gnashed his teeth with envy on reading of Mr. Galsworthy's method of work. “I sink into my morning chair, a blotter on my knee, the last words or deed of some character in ink before my eyes, a pen in my hand, a pipe in my mouth, and nothing in my head. I sit. I don't intend; I don't expect, I don't even hope. … Suddenly, my pen jots down a movement or remark. … When the result is read through it surprises me by seeming to come out of what went before, and by ministering to some sort of possible future.”3

In the case of the detective-story, the future is fixed, and the characters must conform to it, with the author's deliberate intention. This does not mean that the psychology need be artificial or bad. It merely means that proper care must be taken at the beginning to choose the right plot-character combination. Wherever a detective-story fails in plausibility, it may be safely said that the failure is due to a wrong choice of plot to carry the idea or to insufficient care in so visualising and presenting the necessary characters that their actions may appear self-consistent. Usually the fundamental mistake is in the plot-construction. If the plot demands that a character should appear at one point as a careful, methodical business man and at another as a happy-go-lucky, hand-to-mouth hedonist, it is as a rule useless to attempt to reconcile the incongruities. The plot must be scrapped, If, however, it is only that the plot calls for a somewhat elaborately drawn character, full of human contradictions—such as, for example, an artistic person, intensely sensitive to natural beauty but selfish and peevish in the routine of daily life, then it is only necessary to see that this contradictoriness is plainly displayed to the reader from the start. It is useless to carry on with the mechanics of the plot in the happy hope that the characters will “all come right on the night of the performance.”

Naturally, this kind of “fundamental brainwork” takes time and thought, and—what is even more important—space. But there is very much less excuse for carelessness in this respect than there was ten years ago. At that time publishers were naughty enough to insist upon a limit of 70,000 or 80,000 words for a detective novel. Naturally, within such rigid limits, it was almost impossible to do anything but set out the mechanical details of the plot and reduce the characters and their motives to an unintelligible summary. As a result, the said characters and motives were of the crudest kind: a murder was committed, let us say, out of revenge for an ancient wrong; but there was no time in which to show us that the murderer was the type of person to brood over an ancient wrong, or, indeed, to tell us much about the wrong, whatever it was. It had to be stated baldly, somewhere about the time of the discovery, that “Smith, who was a man of sullen and revengeful disposition, had never forgiven Brown for robbing him of his affianced bride, the beautiful Mary Jenkins.” The proper way of showing that Smith was sullen and revengeful would be, of course, to show him exhibiting sullenness and revengefulness about some matter extraneous to the plot, but you cannot do that in 80,000 words if your plot is at all complicated. At the present time, however, publishers have come to realise that the public prefers a novel with “plenty of reading in it.” They will accept, without wincing, novels of 100,000 or 120,000 words, so that the writer now really has a chance to explain his people a little, and even to indulge in a few airs and graces in the way of humour, natural description and charm of presentment.

In consequence partly of this fact and partly of a natural reaction against the extremely mathematical form of detective-problem which held the field for so long, there has been of recent years a distinct tendency to produce a type of story with a more elaborate and realistic psychology than was once thought necessary or desirable. Murderers are on the whole less wicked than they were and victims less innocent—there is more light and shade about them both. Several attempts have been made to show the circumstances leading up to the murder, thus producing what is rather a novel with a detective interest than a detective-story pure and simple. Mr. Anthony Berkeley has issued a manifesto on the subject4 in which he makes his own intentions clear:

“I personally am convinced that the days of the old crime-puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style or even humour, are, if not numbered, at any rate in the hands of the auditors; and that the detective-story is in process of developing into the novel with a...

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Seta Ohanian (essay date spring 1980)

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...

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Mary Brian Durkin, O. P.(essay date 1980)

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...

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Dawson Gaillard (essay date 1981)

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...

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Catherine Aird (essay date 1993)

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...

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Robert Kuhn McGregor with Ethan Lewis (essay date 2000)

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...

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