Dorothy L. Sayers | Montague Egg stories and Other Puzzle Plots | Whose Body? | Clouds of Witness | The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club | The Early Minor Novels | Have His Carcase | Murder Must Advertise | The Nine Tailors | Busman's Honeymoon | The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention | Adventure | Suspense | Backgrounds | Parodies of Sayers by Other Writers | Pastiches by Sayers | Periods of Sayers' Writing | Dante Translation | Critical Opinions on Sayers | A Note on Anthologies

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Dorothy L. Sayers

Recommended Works:

Whose Body? (1923)

Clouds of Witness (1926) (Chapters 1, 2, first part of 3)

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) (Chapters 1 - 12)

Murder Must Advertise (1933)

The Nine Tailors (1934)

Lord Peter Views the Body (collected 1928)

Lord Peter

Hangman's Holiday (collected 1933)

In the Teeth of the Evidence (collected 1939)

Uncollected Radio Plays

Dorothy L. Sayers

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.

Montague Egg stories and Other Puzzle Plots

Dorothy L. Sayers' short stories about sleuth Montague Egg are some of her best works. They are the Sayers stories that most consistently have puzzle plots, and good ones too. There is some fashion among Lord Peter Wimsey fans to denigrate these stories, because Lord Peter does not appear in them. That is carrying Wimseyolatry too far. I am not a member of the Wimsey cult. I think Wimsey is a perfectly good detective, one who does a good job of solving the mysteries in which he appears. He is likable and pleasant. But I hardly think, as do some readers, that Wimsey is the ideal man, the ultimate lover, or the chief appeal of Sayers' detective stories! People have a right to these views, but I cannot share them at all.

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:

The Montague Egg stories have many quotes from the (fictitious) Salesman's Handbook. These anticipate the many quotes from (fictitious) ad campaigns in Murder Must Advertise. Both the Handbook and the ads offer advice to working people. Both attempt clever phrasings. A difference: the advice in the Salesman's Handbook often sounds good, while the advice in the ads sounds bad. Related: "Sleuths on the Scent" includes British media of the time, newspapers and radio. This anticipates the newspapers in Murder Must Advertise.

In general, many of Sayers' best plots are found among her shorter fiction. They tend to have real puzzle plots, in the sense of a initial, well defined mysterious situation that ultimately reaches a clever solution. The other most important puzzle plots in Sayers are found in three later Lord Peter Wimsey tales, "The Queen's Square" (1932), "Absolutely Elsewhere" (1934), and "The Haunted Policeman" (1938). The three stories remind one of Christie, Crofts' The Cask, and Freeman's "Phyllis Annesley's Peril", respectively. "The Queen's Square" employs that Christie staple, the costume party, although Sayers explicitly eschews Christie's trademark, the Harlequin costume, noting on the opening page of her tale that no one is dressed as Pierrot or Columbine. The similarity to Christie is a one time affair, while the influence of Freeman and Crofts is a constant in Sayers' work.

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?

Sayers' first novel Whose Body? (1923), has an excellent mystery plot too, as well as a delightful vein of humor. But most of Sayers' novels are not puzzle plot oriented. Sayers seemed to associate short fiction with puzzle plots, and long fiction with novelistic elements, both thriller fiction and literary material. Even Whose Body? is fairly short, compared to Sayers' other books. One recent hardback reprint is just 100 pages, and perhaps it should be regarded as a novella, not a novel.

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:

In Trent's Last Case, these two inquiries focus on the same murder victim, while in Sayers' Whose Body?, these investigations look at two 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.

Whose Body? has detailed physical investigations of two crime scenes, which lead early on in the book to surprising revelations. Such investigations recall 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.

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness (1926) starts out well, with a comic account of a murder case. Sayers' dialogue and comedy sparkle.

The inquest (Chapter 1) is told like a play. Please see my list of Dramatic Dialogues: Play-like Sections in Fiction.

Even after the inquest, the novel emphasizes dialogue. The book frequently reads like a novelized play.

Architecture and Landscape. Golden Age mysteries regularly show interest in architecture and landscape. This is true of Clouds of Witness:

The country house where the mystery takes place, has a hall (used as a dining room), study, kitchen, billiard room and conservatory. This anticipates the rooms in the mystery board game known as "Clue" or "Cluedo" (1943). The house also has a gun-room. The original version of "Clue" had a gun room, but it was eliminated before the game was marketed.

Detection. The coroner at the inquest (Chapter 1) makes an intelligent suggestion, as to why the corpse was dragged. SPOILERS. He suggests this might be an attempt to dispose of the body. Such a disposal was a persistent theme in R. Austin Freeman.

Sleuths Wimsey and Parker study footprints and related evidence, reconstructing the crime in detail (last part of Chapter 2, first part of Chapter 3). This is sound, traditional detective work. It recalls The Ponson Case (1921) by Freeman Wills Crofts. Both Clouds of Witness and The Ponson Case have mysterious events outside an English country house one evening, reconstructed by footprints. SPOILERS. In both works, prints indicate the presence of a Mysterious Stranger at the murder scene. This is an unknown outsider, whose name and identity are not known to the investigators.

The Mysterious Stranger in Clouds of Witness rides a motorcycle. Motorcyclists also appear in Sayers' ""The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag" and "Sleuths on the Scent" (1933). Earlier, the hero rode a motorcycle in The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) by Freeman Wills Crofts.

Mystery Plot. Unfortunately, the mystery plot in Clouds of Witness is thin, simple and uncreative. It would be too slight to support a short story, let alone a whole novel. Some specific problems:

SPOILERS. The motive for the killing, and the secrets of the brother and sister, entirely revolve around secret, hidden romantic affairs. Oddly, this reminds one of some contemporary "cozies", where all the plot mysteries turn out to consist of people having secret affairs.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

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 detective 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. Freeman's A Silent Witness (1914) is cited 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 (1957).

Chapter Titles. 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.

The Early Minor Novels

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 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. 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. Unlike them, Miss Climpson is not really a detective, merely a gossip. She is a step backward for women, not a step forward.

Have His Carcase

Have His Carcase (1932) is a very long mystery novel, anticipating most of Sayers' subsequent mystery novels, which are also long.

Have His Carcase is not one of Sayers' best works. It has good parts and mediocre ones.

Strengths. Oddly enough, some of the best detective passages in Have His Carcase focus not on Lord Peter Wimsey, but on Harriet Vane. Vane is a detective novelist, and serves as an amateur detective in parts of this novel. The opening (Chapters 1-3) with Vane as sleuth and Point of View character, is strong. Also likable: Vane interviewing witnesses (Chapter 7).

Landscape. The opening (Chapters 1-3) benefits, by giving us a detailed look at the landscape and setting of the mystery. This is extended later (Chapter 9).

The landscape of Have His Carcase anticipates that of The Nine Tailors. Both:

Structure. The story telling structure of Have His Carcase anticipates those of Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors. One type of chapter structure is common in these books. Such a chapter or section mixes: On the Road. Harriet Vane is on a walking tour as the book opens. We learn about the gear she takes (Chapter 1). Soon we visit a nearby tourist town, where much of the novel is set. This portrait of 1932 Britain "on the road", anticipates Sayers' traveling salesman sleuth Montague Egg, whom she will create next year in 1933.

Historical footnote. In this era, the term "gigolo" was often used for men who were paid dancing partners in dance halls. That's how "gigolo" is used in Have His Carcase.

Murder Must Advertise (1933) is about a murder at a London ad agency.

Links to Clouds of Witness. The opening of Murder Must Advertise shares features with that of Clouds of Witness. Both have:

Because we have the inquest accounts, the books feel free to skip showing the initial police investigation.

Post-Modernism?. Sayers is not usually thought of, as an exponent of Post-Modernism in fiction.

But Murder Must Advertise has at least one common feature of literary Post-Modernism. It shows the process of creation, right in the middle of the the novel. In this case, what is created is an advertising campaign. Such "artistic creation within a story" is also known as "Poioumenon", in literary theory

Post-Modernism sometimes deals with the "hyperreal" information bombardment of modern society. Murder Must Advertise can be seen as an early example of this. It shows society deluged with advertising messages. The finale is especially intense in this regard.

Post-Modernism can deal with paranoia, and sinister hidden conspiracies. SPOILERS. Murder Must Advertise has a secret drug gang causing the book's problems. This is admittedly less cosmic, than the possible conspiracy in The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by Thomas Pynchon.

Another feature of Post-Modernism: playing with time in a non-linear way, in telling the story. We get a little of this in the inquest (Chapter 2). The various witnesses keep re-telling the story of the murder, from their own point of view. This has the effect of "re-playing" the same time sequence, over and over again.

The First Murder. The first murder, that of Victor Dean, has a number of mystery aspects.

The murder is a how-done-it: defined as a crime where it is a mystery how the crime was done, physically. Sayers' solution is ingenious. It is revealed a quarter of the way into the book (Chapter 7).

The murder is a who-done-it: defined as a crime where who committed the crime is a mystery, that needs to be solved. The identity of the killer is figured out much later in the novel.

Criminal Scheme. Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers, sometimes included criminal schemes in their tales. Murder Must Advertise has such a scheme: the distribution of the drugs. The detectives have to figure out how this scheme works. This provides a mystery for the sleuths to solve, which is not murder-based.

Curves and Circles. Circular imagery is key in Murder Must Advertise: the spiral staircase, the round scarab stone, the fountain.

Harlequin. Harlequin is a traditional fictional character, that had long been adopted by Agatha Christie as one of her motifs. Sayers moves into direct competition with Christie here, having Wimsey go undercover as Harlequin.

No Color. The first of the "evil upper class" episodes declines to use color (last part of Chapter 4). Wimsey's Harlequin costume is black and white; Willis is costumed in black; Pamela Dean is apparently in white; Dian is in "oyster", likely a pale neutral. This must be one of the least colorful costume parties in history.

The ads described in the novel, are mainly for newspapers. These are all illustrated. But in 1933 they would be in black-and-white.

By contrast, color at a costume party, plays a role in the plot of "The Queen's Square".

Education. Murder Must Advertise repeatedly treats graduates of Oxford and Cambridge as educated. And everyone else in Britain as not educated. Murder Must Advertise never acknowledges that graduates of other universities might also be educated. Or that non-graduates might self-educate through reading or the radio or recordings.

I am not trying to criticize Oxford and Cambridge. It's fine to recognize their graduates as educated. But these schools are only available to a tiny, tiny fraction of Britain's population. Shouldn't all avenues of education in Britain be recognized?

For a contrasting view, please see Sinclair Lewis' enthusiastic depiction of education in a Midwestern state university in Arrowsmith (1925). Lewis' gung-ho fictional state "University of Winnemac" is explicitly contrasted with upper class Harvard, which Lewis depicts as an anemic "select college for young gentlemen". Lewis implicitly suggests the students are getting a much better education at Winnemac, than at Harvard. The University of Winnemac is also gleefully noted to be much bigger than Oxford. As a state school, Winnemac would attract far more lower class students than Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. And while Sayers in Murder Must Advertise attacks learning by recordings or radio, Winnemac "was the first school in the world to conduct its extension courses by radio".

The Poor and Their Lives. Murder Must Advertise (the opening of Chapter 11) summarizes much of what Sayers thinks advertising is doing to the working class of Britain. It's all bad! One has to agree with some of this: advertising's promotion of dubious processed foods and medicines sounds terrible. But other things this passage condemns, force disagreements from me.

It criticizes advertising's attempt to save people's "teeth from decay". Is it really so awful to promote tooth-brushing? The British working class public in that era had horrific dental problems. Tooth-brushing sure could help.

Recordings to teach foreign languages are part of advertising's sins, according to this book. Sayers was trained in foreign languages at Oxford, something she put to good use in her work as a translator. Is promoting teaching-records for people too poor to go to Oxford a sin?

"Hearing virtuosos by radio" is something else allegedly rotten promoted by advertising. Actually, radio's ability to share classical music with a large audience, and for free, is treated as a Good Thing by most experts on classical music.

Sayers was a writer who had limitless self-confidence in her ideas. But she seems to have thought that promoting healthy or educational habits in the working class was controversial and offensive. Today's readers should pause, before accepting her ideas as a definitive account of social policy.

Chapter Titles. Murder Must Advertise uses an elaborate template, shared by most of its chapter titles. This recalls the similar titles of the short stories in Lord Peter Views the Body.

The Nine Tailors

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 well done "background" looks at an English country church and its Rector (clergyman), and the Fen Country surrounding it.

The opening has Wimsey and Bunter have a mild accident in the snow, and winding up in the parlor of a local pub. This recalls an incident in "Sleuths on the Scent". However the similarity is not continued. Instead the action immediately moves to the rectory.

The Crime in the Past. The robbery of the necklace, is that staple of mystery story plot construction, the crime in the past (as I've dubbed it). These are crimes which have taken place some time before the tale opens - but which turn out to have a direct link to events in the tale's present. Such "crimes in the past" show up in mystery authors who otherwise have little in common with Sayers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner, George Harmon Coxe, Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett (John Stephen Strange). And also in writers closer to Sayers, such as H. C. Bailey.

The necklace robbery is still unsolved after all these years, as the novel opens. That is typical of "crimes in the past". Eventually both the "crime in the past", and the mysteries in the book's present, will both be solved by the detective.

How-done-it. As in Murder Must Advertise, the murder is both a how-done-it and a who-done-it. In Murder Must Advertise, how the crime is committed, is solved fairly early in the book. By contrast, in The Nine Tailors how the murder is done is explained only in the book's final pages.

Influence from Ellery Queen?. The Nine Tailors (1934) perhaps shows the influence of Ellery Queen:

Dangerous Staircase. The staircase in the bell tower is dangerous. Wimsey almost falls down it (Chapter 2). This recalls the fatal staircase in Murder Must Advertise.

Metal. The bells are metal and large. In this, they recall:

Straight Lines and Rectangles. Right from the start, The Nine Tailors emphasizes the straight lines of the drain, road and dyke (Chapter 1). The church too is highly rectangular: see the floor plan (Chapter 2). These make the environment of Fenchurch St. Paul rectilinear.

This contrasts with the circular imagery in Murder Must Advertise.

The Waters: Story Structure. SPOILERS. The idea of problems with the waters, is introduced in the chapter "The Fifth Part: Tailor Paul is called before with a single"". This chapter occurs exactly half-way through the book. Such transitions exactly half-way through a story are not uncommon in mystery fiction.

The solution to the mystery is revealed at the very end of the book: something very common in mystery fiction. Also fairly common: just before this solution, there is a thriller or suspense section. Like most such thriller sections, it doesn't have too much to do with the mystery puzzle.

This thriller section in The Nine Tailors differs from other mysteries, in that it does not focus on one or two people in peril (often the heroine). Instead, it offers a group portrait of a large cast.

Culture and Priorities. The Nine Tailors begins with Sayers denouncing jazz music as worthless noise, something that is hard to "tolerate" (in the Foreword). Similarly, motion pictures are dismissed in Murder Must Advertise: they "addle your brains" (Chapter 19). Less clearly, the start of "The Necklace of Pearls" perhaps implies that avant-garde painting and poetry are just trendy fads. As a whole, Sayers was completely dismissive of new 20th Century art forms. Sayers offers no reasons or arguments for these views, and shows no indication of even superficial knowledge of these art forms.

By contrast, The Nine Tailors treats the ancient church bells and the choice of church pews as cultural matters of nearly cosmic significance.

My own convictions are different. I think architecture and design are important, and agree that churches should be preserved and studied. I enjoyed the sections in The Nine Tailors on the bells. But treating church bells as more important than jazz and cinema is just plain wrong. Those are large scale art forms, filled with interest. Sizable literatures analyze film and jazz, and justify their cultural significance.

Film Version. 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 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".

Busman's Honeymoon

The opening of Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon (1937) describes the marriage of middle class Harriet Vane 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). 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, turning her into "Lady Audley", and starting a sinister chain of events leading up to murder. It contains a description of the new couple's estate, a description almost as elaborate as Sayers' account of Talboys. 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 Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention: a novella

The novella "The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention" (published by 1928) anticipates The Nine Tailors. Similarities: However, it is much more into black comedy than the later novel.

Its solution has thematic links to The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928).

Impossible Crime. 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).

Adventure in Sayers

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" (1925), "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.

Sayers' adventure tales like to show her hero Wimsey going undercover in dangerous situations and new identities. They often involve manhunts for dangerous criminals.

A Matter of Taste. "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste" from Lord Peter Views the Body combines adventure with puzzle plot elements.

There is a strong current of adventure running through Murder Must Advertise (1933). "A Matter of Taste" contains adventure plot aspects that anticipate that novel. Also: the hero's feat of jumping onto a train in "A Matter of Taste" anticipates the agile hero's dive in Murder Must Advertise (end of Chapter 6).

Suspense and Thrillers

Sayers wrote a number of excellent suspense short stories, most of which were collected in In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939). They include such thriller gems as "Scrawns" (1932) and "The Cyprian Cat" (1933).

Sayers' biographer Barbara Reynolds dates the remarkable thriller "The Leopard Lady" to the early Sayers period, and says that it was part of a planned series, with at least one other unpublished tale actually written about the same villains.


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.

"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 "The Queen's Square". 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. Sayers created her commercial traveler (traveling salesman) in wine and spirits, Montague Egg; the first six Egg tales appeared in early 1933. 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" (1937) is a 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.

Parodies of Sayers by Other Writers

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.

Pastiches by Sayers

Ask a Policeman. By contrast, Sayers clearly enjoyed taking over Anthony Berkeley's sleuth Roger Sheringham, and writing a serious pastiche of his work, in Ask a Policeman. 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.

Cat in the Bag. "The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag" seems to be an attempt to write a story in the same genre as Freeman Wills 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.

Periods of Sayers' Writing

The influence on Sayers of different realist school authors and traditions was not constant over time: 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, was created in this second period as well, in 1933.

Sayers left her advertising job in 1931, and became a full-time writer. This event may or may not have links to her change in literary direction around this time.

Dante Translation

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.

Opinions on Sayers

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.

A Note on Anthologies

Anthologies 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.