On Dorothy Sayers

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I was speaking with a friend the other night and we were talking about the world of "golden age" mysteries. I commented that Rex Stout had some great characters but really terrible plots--murky, muddy, and nearly indecipherable. Agatha Christie is kind of the reverse--some of the most clever plots around, but other than the detectives (and even there, they are more a mass of peculiarities rather than full blown characters) paper thin characterizations. They suited her purpose--Agatha Christie wrote magnificent scenarios for a game of Clue. Now keep in mind, I hold both writers in very high regard as far as sheer entertainment goes.

He commented that Dorothy Sayers was the best of the lot. And I added "And the worst." He wondered what I meant. Dorothy Sayers is by far the most inconsistent of the Golden Age writers. If you started reading at the first novel Whose Body it is entirely possible you would not consider ever picking up another. If you had the misfortune to pick up Gaudy Night a windy, winding, tortuous nonbook of a book, you might fling in across the room and pronounce anathema on Dorothy Sayers. If you were to pick up (I forget which it is, because I nearly abandoned my Sayers career at these two books) Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or Cloud of Witnesses you would likely be appalled at the sheer classist bigotry that permeates the whole.

But were you to do any of these things, you would have deprived yourself of the extreme pleasures of the best crafted of the books. For Dorothy Sayers is unique. There is no voice like hers, nor any plots, nor story development to match. Five Red Herrings is a magnificent example of the art. My friend said that if was often criticized for its strict reliance of railway tables. But when seen as an extension of and response to the enormously popular Freeman Willis Crofts, one can hardly fault the work, which is in every way superior to Mr. Crofts's very best exploits. And how many people out there read Crofts' any more (myself excluded). The delights of Murder Must Advertise of the sheer virtuosity of The Nine Tailors in which we learn more about ringing the changes than you ever thought you wanted to know. Strong Poison, though by now a cliché of the mystery industry unites Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey and it is an elegant, and if you haven't been exposed to the gimmick, wonderful little study in plotting and a variant of the "locked room murder." In which only one person could possibly have done it because of circumstances.

The overly contrived Busman's Honeymoon still has moments of brilliance. And even though the means of the murder is so highly unlikely as to nearly break the back of this work, still, it somehow works. It took is rather a locked room murder--a genre better exploited and completely explored by John Dickson Carr and his pseudonym Carter Dickson (of whom more later as he based both of his detectives on G.K. Chesterton.)

But Sayers is not to be missed for her wonderful mysteries. Nor should one overlook some of the great and sometimes acerbic religious writings. I don't recall the book, but in one essay she writes of new Calendar days for the Church and includes among them "Derogation days." Her translation of Dante, an exercise undertaken like much of her work, in a futile attempt to show the world that women could be as good as men at classics (it's true, it's just that her work did not show it to the people of the time.) is rather tiresome and plodding.

But Mind of the Maker and many of her other works are well worth our attention today. The disintegration she chronicled in the Anglican Church of her time has continued to our own day and resulted in the debacle of Gene Robinson's Episcopacy.

But her brilliance and her contribution to the wealth of the Golden Age are themselves sufficient reason to spend some time with Dorothy Sayers. But for Heaven's sake, please start with one of the novels of the middle period (excepting Gaudy Night) if you wish to continue reading and enjoying this remarkable writer.

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I believe Sayers fans overwhelmingly pick Gaudy Night as their favorite novel.

I also believe Sayers fans are overwhelmingly actually Lord Peter Wimsey fans (a criticism sometimes also directed at Sayers herself).


I believe Sayers fans overwhelmingly pick Gaudy Night as their favorite novel.

This may be true, but I am not writing to fans. And for those who are not fans, it is a terrible place to begin. And I do consider myself a great fan of Sayers, and obviously in a minority--I think Gaudy Night is a boring overlong paean to Wimsey and Vane, neither of whom show well in the work. My opinion only.

And yes, you may be right. I am not a Lord Peter Wimsey fan. For the most part I find myself liking Sayers despite Wimsey. And when I don't have to deal with him (as in Documents in the Case) I am deeply appreciative of her art.

But again, I am in the minority here.



I am totally a fan, and as much in love with Lord Peter as Dorothy L.Sayers herself was. I like the romance in Gaudy Night, but find all the college stuff a bit much. Still, it's been a few years since my last re-read. Perhaps I will appreciate different aspects of the books now that I am older. Are you familiar with DLS' Oath for admission to the Detection Club? A comic masterpiece, IMO.


I apologize for the tone of the above. It was composed at lunchtime in haste and comes off much more harshly than I had intended. What I meant to say was that the purpose of the post was not so much for Sayers fans, with whom I would be happy to talk about Gaudy Night, but for those who have not been able to see the attraction. I know that I made two false starts in attempting to read the works--Whose Body (because it was the first) and Gaudy Night because it was what the Sayers fans all recommended. I think that if one is to appreciate Gaudy Night, one must already be engaged with Wimsey through the other works. I could be wrong there.

But please do accept my apologies for the brusqueness of the above--it was unintended.



I was just recently discussing Sayers in the comments on another blog. Almost all of the commenters put Gaudy Night and Busman's Holiday at the top of their favorites list; but I suspect doing so does require that you actually have come to like Wimsey and Vane (I don't really like Vane at all - I think Tolkien wasn't too far off in calling her odious, although she has her good moments - but I think Wimsey tends to be at his best with her) even more than the mystery as such. Thus fans, who tend to like the characters themselves, tend to like the more character-driven novels and tend to dislike works like Five Red Herrings - even though you are right that for someone who wants to read a good mystery fiction piece it is an excellent specimen. So while I really do like Busman's Holiday a lot (I would rate it above GN by quite a bit), I would agree entirely with your recommendation as to where people should start when they come to Sayers.

Dear Brandon,

I agree with your assessment of Busman's Honeymoon, I just don't think it her finest. I like the earlier works better. Busman is just a trifle too contrived in device. But then, I suppose contrivance does abound wherever one looks. And while Gaudy Night is not a favorite, it is a fine work after one has become acquainted.

By the way, I agree with your assessment of Harriet Vane as well. The name has a sort of 17th century appropriateness.

By the way is Busman's Holiday the original British title? My editions, which are all American, have Busman's Honeymoon. But I haven't done any real in-depth Sayers research (unlike some of the other Golden Age--JDC, for example) so I'm not acquainted with title histories etc.



Whoops! I think it was just a slip on my part; it's a play on the phrase 'busman's holiday', and so I kept mixing up the title and the phrase. I'm fairly sure the title was always 'Honeymoon', although I think it's a common slip to substitute 'Holiday'.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 19, 2004 7:25 AM.

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