Dorothy L. Sayers | Montague Egg stories and Other Puzzle Plots | The Early Novels in the Freeman tradition | The Early Minor Novels | Adventure | Pastiches | Backgrounds | Periods of Sayers' Writing | Literary Fiction | Critical Opinions on Sayers | A Note on Anthologies
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Whose Body? (1923)
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) (Chapters 1 - 12)
Murder Must Advertise (1933)
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Lord Peter Views the Body (c1928)
Hangman's Holiday (collected 1933)
In the Teeth of the Evidence (collected 1939)
Many people today link Dorothy L. Sayers with Agatha Christie. However, aside from the fact that they were both British women who published mystery stories during the 1920's and 1930's, their works could not possibly have less in common. Instead, Sayers' fiction seems to me to have ties with the realist school of R. Austin Freeman, E.C. Bentley, and Freeman Wills Crofts; these ties are more fully discussed in that article, which is designed as a companion piece to the present one.
Sayers wrote eleven Montague Egg stories; they are the first six tales listed under Hangman's Holiday, and the first five under In the Teeth of the Evidence. These tales are among the best pure detective stories that Sayers wrote. Most of the tales reflect realist school paradigms of detective fiction. Several of the best of these tales center around clocks and alibis. The stories seem to come in series:
Sayers' interest in technical gimmicks also extends to stories about the ingenious hiding of objects. There is the concealment of the will in "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will" (1925), the pearls in "The Necklace of Pearls", the gun in her contribution to Ask a Policeman (1933), and the hidden gems in The Nine Tailors (1934).
Whose Body? recalls the work of both E.C. Bentley and R. Austin Freeman. Whose Body? has two main lines of investigation; each seems modeled on an inquiry in Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), a novel Sayers loved. One line of investigation in Whose Body? looks at the mysterious corpse of an unknown man; Wimsey studies the corpse's grooming for clues, the way the detective similarly studies the corpse in Bentley. The other main inquiry follows the last hours of the missing Levy, and the trail he left behind him in his home. This is modeled on a similar trail of final activities left by the murdered man in Bentley's novel. In Trent's Last Case, these two inquiries focus on the same murder victim, while in Sayers' Whose Body?, these investigations look at tow different people, the anonymous corpse of the title, and the missing Levy. Sayers comes up with puzzle plot solutions to the two investigations that bear a family resemblance to those in Bentley's novel. However, she ties these two plots up with a "disposal of the corpse" plot, that has no analogue in Bentley's book.
Like many of Freeman's stories, Whose Body? centers on the question of disposing of a body. As in Freeman, there is a "breakdown of identity", with the identity of the various corpses undergoing confusion. Considerable ingenuity is shown in these aspects by Sayers. We also have detailed physical investigations of two crime scenes, which lead early on in the book to surprising revelations. Such investigations recalls Freeman, and also the Mr. Fortune stories of H.C. Bailey, another Freeman-influenced author also investigated all the details of corpses to reconstruct the crime.
The story of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) breaks into two halves, with each half functioning as a more or less independent novella. The first and better half, consisting of Chapters 1 - 12 and the start of the succeeding chapter, contains a real puzzle plot. The first half is also rich in genuine detection. In fact, nearly 100% of this section consists of following Wimsey on his detective efforts. Wimsey's detective work shows the influence of Sayers' ancestors in the realist school. Like R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke, Wimsey collects physical clues, such as dust and stains. His valet Bunter does much photography, just like Thorndyke's assistant Polton. There is also some sophisticated medical evidence, also Freeman like. The medical researcher who collaborates with Wimsey, Sir James Lubbock, is also a Dr. Thorndyke like figure. Sayers compares her story to Freeman's work in Chapter 18, with Wimsey suggesting its plot and subject matter have affinities to Freeman's, and citing Freeman's A Silent Witness (1914) explicitly as an ancestor. And Wimsey resembles E.C. Bentley's Trent in his suave, polite technique in interviewing witnesses. Just as in Bentley, the witnesses tend to be of the working classes, people who are continually monitoring and recording the behavior of the upper class suspects and murder victims. There are also the Bentley like quotes from poetry: "You're only doing it to annoy..." in Chapter 7 is from Lewis Carroll, while the references to The Song of Roland in Chapter 8 are quite original. They suggest that the Holmes Watson relationship had precursors in classic literature. Sayers will later translate Roland.
Sayers uses formal, abstract, non-naturalistic chapter titles in this book, in this case based on Bridge hands. Such a technique will become common in later Golden Age writers, especially Ngaio Marsh. Sayers will use this technique later herself in The Nine Tailors, where the chapter titles will be based on bell ringing.
Sayers' poisoning tales include such novels as Strong Poison (1930), and The Documents in the Case (1930), in addition to some of the Montague Egg stories. They tend to have a uniform paradigm, focusing purely and simply on one question: how was the crime done. Sayers usually comes up with some ingenious technical scheme to introduce poison into some receptacle, such as a bottle, that does not appear to have been tampered with. Sayers' simple if clever poisoning ideas work perfectly well in a ten page Montague Egg short story, but they are unable to support a whole novel very well.
Such early Sayers novels as Clouds of Witness (1926), Unnatural Death (1927), Strong Poison (1930), and The Documents in the Case (1930) do not seem very good to me. These novels are painfully minimalist, in their near absence of plot, real detection, or any sort of substance. They lack the puzzle plots of Sayers' shorter works, and the literary quality and fascinating "background" material of such later Sayers novels as Murder Must Advertise (1933) and The Nine Tailors (1934). One problem with the last three of these books, Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, and The Documents in the Case: Sayers deliberately wrote them so that the identity of the killer would be obvious early on. She asserted that it was much more interesting to try to figure out how the crime was committed, than who done it.
I am much less enthused about the character of Miss Climpson than are many critics. While the Sherlock Holmes era was full of genuine female detectives, such as C.L. Pirkis' Loveday Brooke and Anna Katherine Green's archetypal spinster sleuth, Amelia Butterworth, Miss Climpson is not really a detective, merely a gossip. She is a step backward for women, not a step forward.
Sayers apparently began writing detective stories with an attempt to write a Sexton Blake thriller. There is a strong strand of adventure fiction plotting running through many of her works, that seems in contrast to the puzzle plots that dominated British Golden Age fiction. This is most notable in such early short story gems as "The Inspiration of Mr. Budd" (1926), "The Dragon's Head" (1926), and "The Cave of Ali Baba" (1928). In fact, most of the stories in Sayers' first omnibus, Lord Peter Views the Body (collected 1928), are basically adventure oriented. "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste" from that volume combines adventure with puzzle plot elements. There is also a strong current of adventure running through Murder Must Advertise (1933); "A Matter of Taste" contains plot aspects that anticipate that novel. Sayers' adventure tales like to show her hero Wimsey going undercover in dangerous situations and new identities. They often involve manhunts for dangerous criminals.
Sayers wrote a large quantity of excellent suspense short stories, most of which were collected in In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939). Sayers' biographer Barbara Reynolds dates the remarkable thriller "The Leopard Lady" to the early Sayers period, circa 1928, and says that it was part of a planned series, with at least one other unpublished tale actually written about the same villains. One wonders if such undated thriller gems as "Scrawns" and "The Cyprian Cat" are also from this era.
Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey were spoofed twice by her contemporaries. E.C. Bentley's parody, "Greedy Night" (1938), is today rather better known, being included in the Wimsey omnibus, Lord Peter. Its initial section, dealing with Wimsey's preparations to attend a rare book auction, is hilarious, but then it tapers off into mediocrity. This section is cleverest in its look at Sayers' interest in The Song of Roland. Anthony Berkeley contributed a long chapter to the Detection Club round robin, Ask a Policeman (1933), as did Sayers herself. Each wrote about the other's sleuth, Berkeley on Peter Wimsey, Sayers on Berkeley's Roger Sheringham. Berkeley's dialogue is hilarious throughout. It especially focuses on all the literary quotations in Sayers' work. In Berkeley's satire, these numerous quotations have little relevance to the plot, but are dragged in kicking and screaming, then modified to serve as commentaries on the story line. Berkeley captures the conversational style not just of Wimsey, but of Bunter, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Miss Climpson, and other Sayers regulars.
By contrast, Sayers clearly enjoyed taking over Berkeley's sleuth Roger Sheringham, and writing a serious pastiche of his work. One gets the impression she would have liked to take over all of her colleagues' characters, and have a go at putting them through their paces. There is some satire: a view of Sheringham through servants' eyes, and a portrait of how easily Sheringham slips into opportunistic lying, when it will gain him information. But mainly, this is a "real" Sheringham tale. She has him solve the case twice, with two different suspects, presumably in tribute to Berkeley's multiple solutioned The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), which she mentions in the text. She keeps up the flow of inner monologue in Sheringham's mind, just as in Berkeley, showing his mental processes as he solves the case. This mental flow largely comes in the middle of Sayers' story, and is the highlight of her tale. It is full of the ingenious phrasing found in Berkeley, but richly done here with Sayers' full gifts for literary style. Just as in Berkeley, the flow depicts a logical analysis of the world of the story: how Sheringham relates to the characters, how he sees the elements of the case, how he sees detectival technique.
Much of Sayers' characterization in general comes about through linguistic means. Each person in her stories has their own unique way of talking. In addition to linguistic mannerisms, tone is very important. Through tone, the characters convey an attitude to subject matter they discuss, whether enthusiasm, cynicism or casual acceptance.
"The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag" seems to be an attempt to write a story in the same genre as Crofts' The Cask (1920). Just like the cask in The Cask, here there is a sinister discovery made about the contents of a bag; and the peregrinations of the bag are followed with plotting ingenuity, just like the cask in Crofts' novel. Sayers' story develops a very odd structure. It keeps moving off into left field, with a new set of plot twists. It is certainly not "fair play": no one could deduce coming events in the tale on the basis of initial clues.
The opening of Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon (1937) describes the marriage of middle class Harriet to the wealthy Lord Peter Wimsey. They go live on a farm that Harriet knew while growing up called Talboys. Talboys is also the name of the murder victim in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Sensation novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1861 - 1862), and it is hard not to see the name as a joke of Sayers'. Sayers was an authority on the Sensation Novel, writing a study of Wilkie Collins. Braddon's novel also opens with the poor Lucy Graham marrying the rich Lord Audley, starting a sinister chain of events leading up to murder, and contains a description of the new couple's estate, a description almost as elaborate as Sayers'. Harriet Vane was the heroine of Sayers' book, and one based on Sayers herself. But the analogy to Lady Audley puts her in the same position as one of the most famous villainesses in mystery history. Sayers probably relished this as a macabre joke on herself and her heroine.
The realist school favored the use of "backgrounds", in-depth looks at some social institution or society, interwoven into the mystery plot. Three of Sayers' later novels contain such backgrounds: Murder Must Advertise (1933) looks at the advertising business, The Nine Tailors (1934) at an Anglican church in the Fen country, and Gaudy Night (1935) at an English Woman's College. All three of these backgrounds are autobiographical: Sayers worked for a long time at an ad agency, her father was a vicar at a Fen country church, where she grew up, and she went to school at a Woman's College at Oxford. The Nine Tailors contains its background throughout the entire novel, whereas Murder Must Advertise alternates between chapters set at the advertising agency, and more adventure oriented material involving Wimsey hunting down a drug ring among café society. Sayers' backgrounds tend to look at the life of the mind, such as religion, education, or commercial writing in newspapers or advertising, as well as the social institutions that support that mental life. There are always plenty of people in Sayers' backgrounds, engaged in complex interactions. It is a dual vision: both ideas, and the people who create them.
There is also a Background of Scotland running through Five Red Herrings (1931). It anticipates The Nine Tailors in that it is based in a rural area, and in being a novel in which a map and geography play important roles in the story. Another work that anticipates The Nine Tailors is the novella "The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention" (published by 1928): much of it takes place in a country church, and it seems to be the first Sayers work involving a map of part of the countryside. However, it is much more into black comedy than the later novel. Its solution also has thematic links to The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928). The best parts of this otherwise rather routine novella deal with an impossible crime, one of Sayers' few excursions into this mystery tradition. This story invokes the Maskelyne shows in its explanations of the crimes; these were real life London stage magic shows of the era, that also inspired the impossible crime stories of John Dickson Carr. Sayers refers to the Maskelyne shows again at the end of "The Haunted Policeman" (1938).
"The Queen's Square" (1932), a timetable and alibi tale, reads like a complete British country house murder mystery in miniature. It is set during a background of a traditional English holiday celebration, and recreates a "Sir Roger de Coverley" dance. The intricate mathematical patterns and folk lorish origin of the Sir Roger anticipate the bell ringing of The Nine Tailors (1934). There is something ecstatic and visionary in the description of the dance. The mathematical nature of the dance is also echoed in the math of the timetables in the tale. Sayers was a writer who saw mathematics as a glimpse of a higher order of being, an ecstatic lifting up of the possibilities of life. One might also note her Montague Egg clock tales, and the safe combinations in "The Cave of Ali Baba" (1928). As in many visionary writers, color plays an important role in this tale. Parts of "The Queen's Square" deal with games coming to life. A similar theme is found in "The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager's Will" (1925), which also shares its color imagery and geometric patterns. "The Queen's Square" and The Nine Tailors also show Sayers' interest in holiday celebrations; similarly, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club takes place on Armistice Day.
Many of Sayers' backgrounds take us to worlds that are at once more abstract and more charged with meaning than everyday life. They tend to take place in idea rich universes, full of symbolic actions. These universes tend to contain complex formal patterns, involving new roles for people, elaborate costumes, mathematical and geometric patterns, and color schemes. Later, one suspects that much of the appeal of Dante to Sayers will be his construction of such an abstract universe.
The initial motorbiking race in "The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag" has very little to do with the mystery plot to come; it seems to be put in the tale for the sheer joy of describing motorcycling, one of Sayers' main hobbies in real life. Like the "Sir Roger" dance, the race involves speed, movement and mathematical patterns. The two stories have structural similarities; they both open with a background description of an exciting event, the race and the dance, and after this is completed a second act of the story begins, and a mystery problem begins to emerge. The race seems an allegory of life; we see two individuals racing each other, and they are watched enviously by a married man with a side car going much slower.
"The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste" shows Sayers' expert knowledge of wine. It is not known exactly when she created her commercial traveler (traveling salesman) in wine and spirits, Montague Egg; one of her letters suggests the early 1930's. Egg is not the only wine detective of the period; H. Warner Allen's William Clerihew ran a wine shop, and appeared in "Tokay of the Comet Year" (1930) and later novels through the 1930's. The 1930's were the peak period for detective stories about wine: Margery Allingham's Death of a Ghost (1934) has a finale centering around spirits, Lawrence G. Blochman published "Red Wine" (1930), Max Brand "Wine on the Desert" (1936), and Ngaio Marsh Vintage Murder (1937). Allingham's "The Widow" is a 1930's short story about wine.
One of the first uses of backgrounds in Sayers was in the Detection Club's round robin novel The Scoop (1931). Sayers wrote the opening and closing sections of The Scoop, setting it at a great newspaper. The portrait of a business and its workers anticipates that of Murder Must Advertise (1933), and seems like a dry run for that later novel. Her picture of a press run, climaxing the first chapter, is a memorable piece of writing, recalling the well known end of Advertise: both pieces describe information being disseminated out to society through mass media. It involves a strange and wonderful pun on a famous quotation from the Book of Job, something utterly and uniquely Sayersian.
The influence on Sayers of different realist school authors and traditions was not constant over time. Freeman, and the tradition of scientific and medical detection he represents, was most influential on works published during 1923 - 1930, such as Whose Body? (1923), The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), Strong Poison (1930), and The Documents in the Case (1930). The last novel was actually written in collaboration with one of the founders of the scientific school, Dr. Robert Eustace. And Croftsian ideas, such as backgrounds and complex reconstructions of crimes, were most powerful in the books of 1931 - 1935, from Five Red Herrings (1931) though Gaudy Night (1935). The two influences were not strictly confined to these periods; the Croftsian story "The Cat in the Bag" was written by 1928, when Sayers included it in Lord Peter Views the Body; and Sayers would publish a medically based thriller "Blood Sacrifice" (1936) long after most of her Freeman influenced novels.
Still, there is a relatively consistent pattern. The novels of the second, Croftsian period tend to be much longer than Sayers' earlier books, as well. The shift in Sayers' writing corresponds, perhaps coincidentally, to a massive change in society: the advent of the Depression. Sayers' earlier book tended to have settings among the upper classes, even the aristocracy; whereas the later ones tended to be more middle class in orientation, although this switch in focus is already present in such early period books as The Documents in the Case (1930). Sayers' tradesman sleuth, Montague Egg, seems to have been created in this second period as well.
Sayers attempted to bring more "literary" values to detective fiction, and this began to pay off in her later books, especially the impressive The Nine Tailors (1934). This novel does not have a fair play puzzle plot, strictly speaking, but it does have a plot, and a complex, well designed one at that, something that is all to the good. It also includes a well done "background" look at an English country church and its vicar. It is an impressive literary achievement.
The Nine Tailors was made into a superb four hour film by the BBC in 1974. This is the best of all the BBC TV adaptations of Sayers' work. The filmmakers have linearized Sayers' chronology, telling the story in sequence, which is probably a requirement for dramatization. The two central hours, two and three, are probably the richest in the work. The film version rises to its climax at the end of the third hour, with the characters assembled in church and singing the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy".
Sayers devoted much of her last years to a superb translation of Dante. While mystery readers lament the lack of further detective novels, one has to admit that the Dante is a really good book, one that displays Sayers' poetic gifts at their peak. My favorite of the three sections is the Paradise. The Purgatory comes a close second. Barbara Reynolds did a good job completing the work. Sayers' extreme clarity and literalness in translating Dante is also a major asset of her version: Dante's ideas, plot, and characters come over loud and clear. I have used the Paradise as a literary model for much of my writing, ever since I read it at age 23. In a way, this web site is a guided tour of the "Heaven" of the great writers and books of mystery fiction.
William L. DeAndrea has pointed out that Sayers' readers tend to go to extremes. They either think she is a great master, or they dismiss her. I think she was an uneven but sometimes very good writer, with a remarkable variety of skills. She could create good mystery puzzle plots, and sometimes did. She had literary skills, and sometimes used them. She could also create interesting background material. She also had a flair for thriller material, and it pops up in such works as Murder Must Advertise and "The Cave of Ali Baba". One never quite knows what one will get when one starts a Sayers story, and one takes pot luck.
Nowadays there is a tendency of some critics to promote her and Agatha Christie as the only two good writers of the Golden Age. This is a grotesque concept, one that involves dismissing Mary Roberts Rinehart, R. Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr, not to mention such gifted one shots as E.C. Bentley, A.A. Milne, and Hake Talbot, and the comic auxiliary of Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer. In any case, instead of narrowing the canon of mystery fiction, scholars should be trying to expand it, reviving the neglected works of outstanding authors.
Another common take on Sayers is that she raised detective fiction to the status of literature. This point of view is especially common in academic studies on Sayers. These writers tend to depict Sayers as the only writer of merit, in a field of detective fiction otherwise consisting of nothing but subliterary junk. Critics of Hammett and Chandler tend to make similar claims for their authors, portraying them as lonely little petunias in the onion patch of detective fiction. There is some truth to this idea, however misguided in its dismissal of detective fiction as a whole. Sayers (and Hammett and Chandler) did include elements in their books closer to mainstream fiction than did many Golden Age mystery writers. These literary elements have real merit. But so do the more purely mystery elements often found in Sayers and Hammett, such as their plotting and use of detection. These have genuine artistic merit too. So does the best fiction of mystery writers as a whole. The time has more than come for people to recognize the brilliant plotting of Christie, Queen and Carr as an artistic accomplishment in its own right. Good plotting, logic, and imagination are artistic merits, in any branch of literature, mystery fiction included.
This article on Sayers takes a different tack. Instead of seeing merit only in those elements of Sayers that differ from other mystery story writers, it tries to take a broad point of view, analyzing Sayers' accomplishments along the whole continuum of her writing, from plotting to literary Background material. It stresses what Sayers had in common with other mystery writers, not just her differences. Sayers herself was of two minds on this issue. Her critical writings stressed her personal artistic goal: an attempt to turn the mystery story into a novel of depth, with real characters and subjects of substance in their backgrounds. But Sayers also emphasized her relationship to detective fiction as a whole: founding and being the guiding force behind the Detection Club, a professional association of British authors that stressed "pure" detection; and serving as a prominent reviewer, historian, and anthologist of detective fiction. Sayers was virtually the Pope of British Golden Age detective fiction. Her encouragement in print of new writers, such as John Dickson Carr, made their reputations, and their careers. Attempts by contemporary critics to divorce her from detective fiction do violence to her own beliefs.
These are often the best sources for short stories today, original magazines being expensive, and one author collections being out of print. In terms of story quality, the best of Dorothy L. Sayers' three omnibuses is #2, from 1931. I am out of synch with Sayers' idea that mystery and horror stories are linked, and am disinterested in the horror stories she often included in her anthologies.
The introduction to Sayers' first omnibus (1928) contains an in depth look at detective fiction. It is heavily weighted to the Realist School. Both the School's leaders, R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts are featured prominently. There is also a great deal about the Realist School's ancestor, scientific detection. Sayers' citing of L.T. Meade as the founder of scientific detection has been much quoted since, by Ellery Queen and others. Sayers was the first to identify Meade as the founder of scientific detection. Sayers collaborated with Meade's partner, Robert Eustace on The Documents in the Case (1930), and she is the sole source of the information that Meade was responsible for the writing and Eustace for the scientific ideas in Meade and Eustace's stories. Sayers' highlighting of women writers like Meade, Isabel Ostrander, and Mrs. Henry Wood, often neglected by male critics of her era, reflects her feminism.