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Dorothy L. Sayers

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Dorothy Leigh Sayers (June 13, 1893–December 17, 1957) was an English academic, linguist, writer and lay theologian. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University (in 1915, with first class honours in modern languages). Well-respected in academic and religious circles during her lifetime, she is best remembered today for her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, though she herself thought that her non-fiction was her best work. Her writing contained social commentary and explored themes of feminism (particularly women’s education and sexuality), business ethics, racism and other social issues before any of these were the well-defined fields of study that they are today. Upon her death, the New York Times wrote:

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was widely regarded as one of the most erudite present-day writers of detective fiction....Probably Miss Sayers will be remembered longest for the creation of Lord Peter Wimsey, an efficient although at times insufferably affected peer who solved crimes and served as a mouthpiece for Miss Sayers' considerable learning.[1]

Sayers approached even her writing of fiction with thoroughness and precision. Though her evident erudition and commitment to accuracy is often praised, some have called it tedious and distracting. For example, Sayers went to extraordinary lengths to learn the elements of campanology for The Nine Tailors; some found her attention to detail compelling; others deemed it boring. "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will" contains a complex literary crossword puzzle, the details of which are not integral to the story.

Sayers was a great friend of other Christian writers of the day, including C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Like most writers, Sayers’s works often reflect the attitudes and the social mores of her generation, her class, and the prevailing thought of the day. This has led to charges of racism and antisemitism in her work, allegations that have been vigorously argued on both sides by her critics and her defenders.

Favorable appraisals

Most fans of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries have their personal favorites among the books. The Nine Tailors, however, published in 1934, at the height of her reputation, has frequently been cited as either her best novel or as her most famous one. When it first appeared, Isaac Anderson, the mystery reviwer of the New York Times, wrote:

It may be that you, like this reviewer, do not know the difference between a kent treble bob major and a grandsire triple, but even so, you will probably enjoy what Dorthy Sayers has to say about them and about other things concerned with the ancient art of change-ringing, since her dissertation is all woven into a most fascinating mystery tale.... ...Some months after the bell-ringing episode, Lord Peter is invited by the rector to come back and unravel the mystery of an unidentified corpse that has been found in a grave where it had no business to be. The case is an usually difficult one.... you will make some delightful acquaintances among the people of the parish of Fenchurch St. Paul. This is, most emphatically, Dorothy Sayers at her very best.[2]

Upon her death, 23 years after the book's first publication, the Time's obituary said that "'The Nine Tailors,' published in 1934, is not only a murder mystery but also a learned study of campanology, the art of bell ringing. Many critics regard this as her finest literary achievement."[3]

Writing in 1941, the noted mystery critic and historian Howard Haycraft says about Sayers and The Nine Taylors:

...Dorothy Sayers (1893—), who has been called by some critics the greatest of living writers in the form. Whether of not the reader agrees with this verdict, he can not, unless he is both obtuse and ungrateful, dispute her preëminence as one of the most brilliant and prescient artists the genre has yet produced.... The Nine Tailors—in the writer's estimation her finest achievement and one of the truly great detective stories of all time.[4]

No less a critic than John Dickson Carr, himself one of the greatest mystery writers of the Golden Age, had prepared, in 1946, a gigantic anthropology of The Ten Best Detective Novels. One of the books chosen was The Nine Tailors.[5]

And finally, in Blood in Their Ink: The March of the Modern Mystery Novel the British mystery writer Sutherland Scott asks that if one had to select:

Dorothy Sayers' outstanding characteristics, they might be stated as (a) her ingenuity in thinking up unusual murder methods; and (b) her ability to insert a first-class mystery into a background which is not in itself dramatic.[6]

He goes on to classify Sayers, favorably, among other writers, all of them British, of the airy-fairy mystery:

This group applies British institutions and the British mode of life, sometimes in an exaggerated form, to the detective novel. The result depends substantially on the author concerned... Like our native brand of humour, stories in this category are not always so well received abroad.[7]

Unfavorable appraisals

Not all critics and fellow mystery writers were so charitable about either Sayers in general or The Nine Taylors in particular.

As the 1930s passed, Sayers' began to devote less space in her books to formulaic detective fiction and more to the trappings of the mainstream novel. Not everyone was happy with this evolution:

Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1939, John Strachey represented the extreme view when he said, "[Miss Sayers] has now almost ceased to be a first-rate detective writer and has become an exceedingly snobbish popular novelist."[8]

In a 1949 letter the hardboiled mystery writer Raymond Chandler picked up on the same theme:

...Sayers tried to make the jump from the mystery to the novel of manners and take the mystery along with her. She tried to move over, with all her baggage, from the people who can plot but can't write to the people who can write and, all too often, can't plot. She didn't really make it, because the novel of manners she aimed at was in itself too slight a thing to be important. It was just the substitution of one popular trivial kind of writing for another.[9]

Two years later, in 1951, a Chandler letter was even harsher about the 1935 Gaudy Night, another favorite among Sayers' fans:

God, what sycophantic drivel. A whole clutch of lady dons at an Oxford college all in a flutter to know about Lord Peter Wimsey and to know about the plot of Harriett Vane's latest mystery story. How silly can you get? And yet this is far from being a silly woman.[10]

These words, however, were mild compared to those of the august literary critic and curmudgeonly man of letters Edmund Wilson. Writing in The New Yorker in 1944 he began by excoriating crime fiction in general in an essay called "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" Three months later, responding to a barrage of criticism from other literary lights such as Jacques Barzun, Joseph Wood Krutch, Raymond Chandler, Somerset Maugham, and Bernard De Voto, Wilson had read another selection of mystery novels and updated his views in "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?". In it he takes particular aim at Sayers, The Nine Taylors, and Lord Peter:

The writer that my correspondents were most nearly unanimous in putting at the top was Miss Dorothy L. Sayers...and the book of hers that...I could not fail to enjoy was...The Nine Taylors. Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters: "Oh, here's Hinkins with the aspidistras. People may say what they like about aspidistras, but they do go on all the year round and make a background," etc.[11]

Lord Peter

Wilson then takes his ax to Lord Peter:

There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey, and, although he was the focal character in the novel, being Miss Dorothy Sayer's version of the inevitable Sherlock Holmes detective, I had to skip a good deal of him too...and the awful whimsical patter of Lord Peter.[12]

Writing about the dénouement of The Nine Taylors, Wilson admits that it is:

Not a bad idea for a murder, and Conan Doyle would have known how to dramatize it in an entertaining tale of thirty pages, but Miss Sayers has not hesitated to pad it out to a book of three hundred and thirty pages.[13]

As for Sayers' writing:

I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well, and I felt that my correspondents had been playing her as their literary ace. But, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level. In any serious department of fiction, her writing would not appear to have any distinction at all.[14]

Other writings

Dorothy Sayers also wrote several plays, including a series of religious radio plays for the BBC under the heading of The Man Born to be King. These were broadcast during the years of the Second World War and reached a large audience.

Her essay, The Mind of the Maker (1941), was both an autobiography of her creative impulses and a Trinitarian Christian statement.

She also worked on a translation of Dante's Commedia but died before completing it. Penguin Classics published a completion of this.

References

  1. Obituary in the New York Times of December 19, 1957 at [1]
  2. "New Mystery Stories", by Isaac Anderson, in the New York Times of March 25, 1934, at [2]
  3. Obituary in the New York Times of December 19, 1957 at [3]
  4. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, by Howard Haycraft, D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1941, page 135
  5. The book was never published: three of the publishers who owned the reprint rights refused permission. In the Queens' Parlor, by Ellery Queen, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957, page 95
  6. Blood in their Ink: The March of the Modern Mystery Novel, by Sutherland Scott, Stanley Paul and Company, London, 1953, page 56
  7. Ibid., page 101
  8. Ibid., page 138
  9. Raymond Chandler Speaking, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1962
  10. Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, a Delta Book, published by Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1987, page 291
  11. "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd", in Classics and Commercials, by Edmund Wilson, Vantage Books, New York, 1962, page 258
  12. Ibid., page 259
  13. Ibid., page 259
  14. Ibid., page 259. Somewhat surprisingly, on page 262, Wilson does have some relatively kind words to say about Raymond Chandler and his novel Farewell, My Lovely