Conventions of Detective Fiction and the Reader's Contract in Early Dorothy Sayers Novels
(Warning: paragraph 5 contains spoilers for Whose Body? and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)
I hope I won’t be judged too harshly if I admit that when I go back to re-read one of Dorothy Sayers’ detective novels about Lord Peter Wimsy (not an infrequent occurrence), I usually pick up one of the four that describe his courtship of and marriage to Harriet Vane, and that even in those, I tend to skip over most of the detecting parts in favour of the couple’s passionate declarations of mutual respect, their marriage proposal in Latin and their first kiss on the Magdalen Bridge. Because of this, it’s been many years since I opened the earlier novels. When I set out to read them in publication order, beginning with Whose Body? (1923), Clouds of Witness (1926), Unnatural Death (1927) and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), it had the happy effect of a new discovery, full of depths and insights that I can’t remember noticing on first reading.
Detective fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, requires a contract between author and reader. The reader is attempting to solve the mystery along with the detective protagonist, while the author is attempting to delay illumination until the final page. For this game to be fair, rules must be followed—Ronald Knox tabulated ten such guidelines (1929), S. S. Van Dine twenty (1928) (see references below)—and an author who breaks them is accused of “cheating.” But there is a deeper contract that often passes un-remarked. Detectives solve crimes by means of their knowledge of the world and of human nature, and so it is indispensable that the worlds contained in these novels should be consistent and convincing. As a child encountering Agatha Christie for the first time, I became aware that crucial deductions hinged on such seemingly arbitrary dictums as that husbands and wives will murder each other for insurance money, that foreign maids will blackmail their employers, or that lovers quarrel with passionate violence. These bothered me; they were outside my own experience. More importantly, the author had not made me experience them. (It is best to admit now that Christie comes in for an unfair share of negativity in this review; she was brilliant, but her role in defining the genre of detective fiction makes her a natural standard for comparison). Sayers, on the other hand, excels in her ability to create a convincing world, rooted in the historic, economic and societal realities of her time, and richly peopled by characters from all walks of life. To the extent that this world eschews stereotypes, it wins the reader’s trust, even while its unruly realism often causes Sayers to break the stricter conventions of a genre whose original purpose was to give readers an escape from the real world.
Myriad details serve to embed Sayers’ novels in the 1920s when they were written. For example, the corpse that appears in a bath in Whose Body? is quickly discovered to be that of an unemployed itinerant looking for work, a common feature of interwar England, but one that seldom appears in detective novels, with their usual cast of upper-class characters. Then again, the 1920s were a time of growing public enthusiasm for science, and Sayers is meticulous in her research. In Bellona Club we enter the laboratory of analyst Sir James Lubbock and watch him perform a Marsh test for arsenic (49), while we also visit the cemetery to witness the exhumation of a body (117), forensic details which, in most detective novels of the period, would only be gestured at in a mechanical way. Although such details do not advance the plot, they give us a sense of a place that is more than a theatrical plywood set.
Of course, one of the most omnipresent features of the 1920s was the recently ended Great War. American literary critic Edmund Wilson argued that the popularity of detective fiction rose during the interwar period because the legacy of one war, and the approach of the next, left generalised feelings of guilt and fear which must be pinned onto a murderous “other” (“Why do People Read Detective Stories?”, 1944). However, Sayers does not shrink from treating the effect of war in a more explicit way. The physical and economic hardships faced by veterans is a major theme of Bellona Club. This book contains a sensitive and insightful portrait of a marriage placed under stress by the husband’s disability and his insecurity in his masculinity when his wife becomes the breadwinner. To a lesser extent, characters’ experiences during the war years—working in hospitals, losing loved ones, facing economic collapse—form the background of all the books. Wimsy himself struggles with shell-shock, which forces him to withdraw from the investigation in Whose Body? It is interesting, in this context of mental illness, that the murderer in at least two books is a doctor who claims to be able to abolish problems of conscience, among other mental disorders, by medical intervention—surgery in the case of Sir Julian Freke, and “glands” in the case of Dr. Penberthy. The repetition is obvious enough to seem like laziness on Sayers’ part, but perhaps it can be argued that she circled back to this idea because its grip on her imagination made her want to work it out carefully, under different scenarios. To offer facile solutions to the mental and spiritual trauma of war is dishonest and dangerous. We may be reading escapist literature, but there was no escape for the characters who lived through it. Sayers’ willingness to engage with the war, to give it a concrete name and not merely reflect it in Wilson’s “all-pervasive feeling of guilt,” gives her novels a depth and reality that would otherwise be missing.
Another area of canvas conventionally left blank in contemporary novels was the lower echelons of society. A typical Agatha Christie novel is populated by upper-class characters, with a smattering of film actors, business moguls and exotic foreigners thrown in. Servants, while naturally appearing, do very little beyond testify to the suspicious movements of their employers. In fact, in his “Twenty rules for writing detective fiction” S. S. Van Dine noted that “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit…The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person.” That “worth-while” is telling. In these early novels, Sayers does not give a working class character the important role of perpetrator, but in compensation she does give them rich internal lives. We learn that the footman who carried a crucial letter-bag to the post office in Clouds of Witness is a hobby collector of autographs but not stamps (17), and when the maid discovers the incriminating traces of blood on the hem of Lady Mary’s skirt, the information comes to the reader filtered through her own experiences of personal loss during the Great War (70). Whose Body? has several charming and very funny scenes of Wimsy’s manservant, Bunter, flirting with housemaids while he photographs fingerprints in the kitchen, or using Wimsy’s liquor cabinet to inveigle confidences from a suspect’s butler. Throughout the books Sayers gives us not only servants, but an entire missing working class of policemen, mechanics, sweet-shop owners, and tavern-keepers. The convention of omitting the working class is so strong (and, of course, not confined to detective fiction) that the reader is almost startled when the bulk of humanity reappears in living, breathing colour.
A great deal has already been usefully said about Sayers’ feminism, focusing on her important essay “Are Women Human?” in which she argues that men and women must be considered as individuals rather than mere representatives of distinct classes with masculine and feminine attributes. In reading these earlier novels it is possible to see how her philosophy of the individual’s value also transcends other categories, such as class. However, Sayers’ genuine ability to create insightful characters makes her frequent lapses into stereotype more glaring. Often it is possible to detect the source material that Sayers has thoughtlessly appropriated: the pathological and obsessive lesbian relationship portrayed in Unnatural Death was a stock narrative of the interwar period (Clemence Dane’s Regiment of Women, mentioned in passing by one of Sayers’ characters, may be the prototype), while the taciturn, wife-beating Yorkshire farmer in Clouds of Witness seems to have been lifted directly out of Wuthering Heights. Overall, the books abound with irascible Scotsmen, Jewish financiers and ‘virtuously humble’ Black characters. Against these, we can set such genre-breaking characterisations as the warm and sympathetic portrait of the marriage between Sir Reuben Levy and his Christian wife in Whose Body?, or the delightful and well-adjusted Miss Climpson, a far-from-depressed spinster, who is the one bright spot in the otherwise fairly mechanical Unnatural Death. Mervyn Bunter is another character who escapes being a caricature: the idea for his character, a preternaturally competent manservant to a dotty aristocrat, seems to have been inspired by P. G. Wodehouse’s comic creation Jeeves. What saves the character from mere pastiche is the depth of Wimsy and Bunter’s shared experiences during the Great War, and Bunter’s caring for his employer during episodes of shell-shock. These characters might originate in stereotypes, but they put down roots and flourish as real people.
We might ascribe some of this inconsistency to the fact that Sayers was still trying to write detective fiction, and within this circumscribed genre, well-rounded characters come at a cost. Harriet Vane, Sayers’ alter ego, discovers this in Gaudy Night (1936) when she tries to introduce a realistic character into her own novel: “With the reduction of Wilfrid’s mmotives to what was psychologically credible, a large lump of the plot had fallen out” (373). Sayers was probably writing from experience here, and had struggled similarly to balance character and convention. Some of the rules that she broke hardly seem serious, such as a supposed murder turning out to be a suicide (which Van Dine decried as an “anticlimax… to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader”). Other rules deserved to be discarded, such as the unwritten rule which I like to call the “disposable victim.” Within the conventions of the genre—at least in the 1920s—authors were often at pains to assure readers that the victims were unpleasant people, unlikely to be missed. Readers of escapist literature did not want the disagreeable emotions of grief and fear that would surround a death in the real world, and these unpleasant victims rendered the story more palatable. Authors were aware of the moral ambiguity that was thereby introduced, and an explicit discussion of whether these lives had “value” was a common feature of the genre: an immediate example that springs to mind is Curtain by Agatha Christie, in which a husband is freed from a demanding wife. The consensus is usually that the demands of the law are still paramount. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness follows the convention of having a rather unpleasant victim, while Unnatural Death and Bellona Club have victims who are already elderly and near death, which, at the time, was perceived as a gentler variation. This does not mean that Sayers is going to let us pass hastily over death on the way to the more interesting business of detection: more than any of her contemporaries, Sayers has a way of using small details to bring the horrors of death to the fore, to the point that her descriptions of the victims’ bodies can be upsetting to read. These are also part of the complete world that Sayers creates, and she is not going to let us forget about it.
Where Sayers comes off worst in the conflict between reality and convention is in the structure of her stories, which compare somewhat poorly to the tightly plotted puzzles that Agatha Christie did so well. She tends to let the cat out of the bag rather early—the reader knows the identity of the murderer some sixty pages before the end in both Clouds of Witness and Bellona Club, while in Unnatural Death, there is never any doubt about who has killed the victim. This is irritating to mystery-loving readers, but it is a direct consequence of Sayers rejecting that staple of detective fiction, the naïve side-kick. Wimsy’s partners in detection—Detective-Inspector Charles Parker in the early novels, Harriet Vane in the later ones—are as competent as he is, and if Wimsy occasionally conceals details of his thought processes from his friends, he does not conceal them gratuitously or for very long. Thus the reader is only in the dark as long as Wimsy is. In Clouds of Witness and Unnatural Death, Wimsy and Parker actually arrive at their moment of illumination by talking the case out between them. It is worth sacrificing the reader suspense that otherwise appears so fundamental to the genre for the genuine personal and professional respect between Wimsy and Parker.
Sayers’ detective novels—written at the terrific clip of nearly one per year—are far from flawless, and they all have moments when they sprawl or sag. However, for me they will always remain the most satisfying novels of detective fiction’s Golden Age. An author can sacrifice the perfectly-oiled machinery of deduction when she has left room for the more surprising mysteries and foibles of human nature. --Mary Thaler