Dorothy Sayers Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.