Bibliomania & bloodshed: The books of Dorothy L. Sayers

Chris Chan

Pioneering scholar. Religious apologist. Innovative dramatist. Literary critic. Mystery writer. The British author Dorothy L. Sayers was all of these things. Sayers is one of the most impressive and underappreciated intellectual figures of the first half of the twentieth century. Not only did she participate in almost every cerebral and social debate of her day, but she made it her business to redefine all of the rules for intellectual discussion. Her friends loved and respected her. Her enigmatic nature sparked the controversial title of one biography of her entitled Such a Strange Lady.Sayers had an incredible brain and was never afraid to use it. She was one of the first women in England to receive a college education from a first-rate university. She pursued a number of careers commonly blocked to women until she finally found her forte in writing. But most of all, Sayers wrote prodigiously with the aim of restructuring the intellectual boundaries of her day.

Sayers emerged as the leading defender of the oft-maligned detective story. Throughout her career, Sayers strived tirelessly to make critics see the detective story as more than just a light diversion, but as a “respectable form of literature.” Sayers experimented with the genre in unexpected ways in order to achieve her goal. Many critics accused her of being self-important and tiresome, but I think that this is unfair.

Sayers’s mystery fiction is some of the most literate ever produced. The crimes are solved by Lord Peter Wimsey, often billed as the first fictional aristocratic sleuth. Lord Peter is one of the few detectives to grow and change significantly throughout his exploits. The novels expertly develop his sense of morality and capacity for mercy. Even better, Sayers creates an enormous cast of supporting characters, a loyal and lovable crew of friends and family to help Lord Peter with his cases. The most prominent of the featured cast is Harriet Vane, Sayers’s thinly disguised self-portrait. Lord Peter first meets and falls for her in Strong Poison, when she’s on trial for the murder of her ex-lover. Their relationship matures over the course of three more books.

Where should one start reading the Wimsey mysteries? My personal opinion is that you have two options. If you are to fully appreciate the character development and notice Sayers’s growing mastery of her form, you must start at the beginning with Whose Body? and work your way up chronologically through the dozen or so Lord Peter mysteries (but don’t neglect The Documents in the Case, her only non-Wimsey mystery novel). If you are not so inclined I guess you could start anywhere, but be warned: the solutions to some of the earlier books are occasionally mentioned in the later ones.

There isn’t a bad book in the bunch. Still, three are undeniably masterpieces. Strong Poison is one of her best problems and has some of her most enjoyable characters. The Nine Tailors, about a murder at a country church that disrupts the residents of a small town, is considered by many to be Sayers’s most perfect work.

In my opinion, the best Wimsey book is Gaudy Night, but please read Strong Poison and Have His Carcass first. Please? Gaudy Night is Sayers’s longest book, but amazingly, there is no murder. The real plot revolves around Harriet Vane’s return to her alma mater, Oxford, and meeting with her old friends and the formidable female scholars there. Some critics say that this book is merely long-winded, self-indulgence. I respectfully disagree.

I am not being facetious when I say that Gaudy Night is one of the most criminally overlooked masterpieces of the twentieth century. Some critics have rightfully called it the best feminist novel of the century. If Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was a call for social change in higher education, Gaudy Night is the response. It covers all sorts of social themes with a skill that is practically unsurpassed. Once I have triumphed in my crusade to have G.K. Chesterton’s writings made the staple of college curriculums that they so desperately need to be, I will throw my metaphorically scarred, crippled, bleeding body back into the fray and fight to have Gaudy Night gain its rightful place amongst the other thick-spined classics that are taught in college courses on modern fiction.

So please, start reading Sayers’s books. Sayers was an amazing woman, and we only hurt ourselves by ignoring her vast and varied output of work. I have so much to say about her that I have trouble ending this review. Incidentally, my first version of this review was eighteen hundred words long. Sayers deserves to be talked about at great length.