Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is the sixth and final episode of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War. If this is the first time you’re hearing it, you might want to go back and catch up once you’re finished with this episode – I’ve covered Agatha Christie, E.C.R. Lorac, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh.
We’re finishing the series with an author very dear to my heart, but who doesn’t quite fit the pattern set by her fellow queens of crime. Whereas other crime writers moulded their whodunnits to fit the changing times as war broke out, she allowed herself to be pulled into different kinds of work and left mysteries behind her in that interwar period we now know as the golden age of detective fiction. The Second World War saw her become more famous than ever, but it wasn’t for her sleuthing stories.
She is, of course, Dorothy L. Sayers.
Even a quick glance at Dorothy L Sayers’ list of publications will leave you with questions about why I’m including her in a series about the development of mystery writing during World War Two. Her last full length detective novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, was published in 1937. Aside from a few short stories here and there after that and a contribution to a round robin novel in 1939, that was her last proper detective fiction to be published. From about 1940 until she died in 1957, in the strictest sense Dorothy L Sayers was no longer a working crime writer.
Yet I’m devoting this episode to her anyway, and there are a few reasons why. Chief among them is just the fact that she’s my favourite golden age writer — a fact that will not be a surprise to any of you who have been listening to Shedunnit since the beginning — and I wanted to research what she was doing in the 1930s and 1940s. She’s also a prominent figure in the genre full stop, especially in the 1930s as a co-founder of the Detection Club and an influential reviewer of crime fiction, and I think what she did had wider ramifications for the form. And as I looked into all of this, I began to understand a bit more about exactly why it was that Sayers left detective fiction behind her after two decades of intense involvement in it. I think her evolution as a writer during WW2 is both very revealing of her own personality and interests, and also of what was happening in British literature at the time. But to understand this, we need to rewind a little bit, to 1934.
In 1934, Sayers published her ninth detective novel to feature her famous sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, The Nine Tailors. It’s a tour de force of a story, taking in everything from a twenty year old cold case to a intricate bellringing puzzle. It was a bestseller. Critics at the time and since have hailed it as her greatest literary achievement to date, and it’s long had a place in the upper echelons of interwar detective novels. Perhaps more significantly for her, the Campanological Society of Great Britain felt that her handling of the bell ringing plot was so masterly that they invited her to become their vice president.
The Nine Tailors came after an extraordinarily busy period for Sayers. Since 1930 she had published a Wimsey novel a year as well as several collaborative works like the Detection Club’s round robin novel The Floating Admiral and her co-written project with Robert Eustace, The Documents in the Case. She actually wrote The Nine Tailors at the same time as another Wimsey book, Murder Must Advertise, because all of the bellringing details took a long time to work out and she had a contract to fulfill. The fact that she was doing both at the same time surely makes what she achieved with it all the more impressive.
But although 1934 saw her hard work rewarded with acclaim and success, Sayers was beginning to find the solitary life of the novelist irksome. The Detection Club provided her with a literary community of sorts, but when it came to the actual work she had to sit alone in a room for months on end to produce the stories, articles and novels that made her living. And so she went looking for an alternative way of doing things.
She found it in a suggestion from an old university friend, Muriel St Clare Byrne. In early 1935, Muriel, a historian and a lecturer in drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, agreed to help Dorothy with a play featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Muriel was a friend from their time at Somerville College Oxford before the first world war, and a fellow member of the Mutual Admiration Society writing group that formed there — there’s a whole episode of the show about that if you’d like to find out more. For a while as Dorothy and Lord Peter had been becoming more well known, Muriel had been helping her friend by fielding the film and stage adaptation requests that were coming in. Now, seeking a collaborative writing project and armed with an idea for a detective stage comedy that would still obey the rules of fair play, Dorothy enlisted Muriel to bring it to life.
Sayers worked on this play, soon titled Busman’s Honeymoon, with Muriel and at the same time wrote the novel that would precede it in Wimsey’s personal chronology, Gaudy Night. She was reinvigorated by the theatrical project, and less than a year after they started it, the play was being considered by producers and investors. It eventually opened in the West End in December 1936. Sayers revelled in the process of rewrites and rehearsals and rejoiced in her new theatrical friends. The overworked, jaded woman of 1934 who was considering leaving her marriage and her detective behind was gone.
In 1936, it’s hard to imagine that Sayers would ever stop writing about Peter Wimsey. She was full of enthusiasm for him: Gaudy Night had, in spite of her reservations about it, been well received and the play of Busman’s Honeymoon ran for nine months and got good reviews. She had also recently made a new friend, the heraldry expert Wilfred Scott-Giles, and together they had great fun construction an aristocratic backstory for the Wimsey family. The following year, Scott-Giles, Sayers and several of her other friends held a celebratory luncheon and read papers to each other about different aspects of Wimsey family history. She was as keen on her sleuth as ever.
But it was also in 1936 that the request arrived that would set her on the path of leaving Wimsey behind. Canterbury Cathedral had recently started commissioning plays as part of its annual festival, and her friend the Inkling Charles Williams had recommended that the cathedral ask Sayers to write the one for 1937. She was initially hesitant, given that her only produced play to date was a co-written comedy and that she would be following in the footsteps of TS Eliot, whose Murder at the Cathedral had been a big success as the first cathedral play in 1935. But eventually, she agreed to do it and plunged herself into writing what would become The Zeal of Thy House.
Once again, Sayers delighted in the experience of writing a play and being involved in the company that brought it to life. She corresponded extensively with the composer and costumiers who worked on this piece set in the 12th century, and although it was hard work, proudly invited all of her friends and family down to Canterbury for the premiere on 12th June 1937. It was well reviewed, but some critics expressed their surprise that a crime writer known for creating an aristocratic sleuth could have written this mature, thoughtful drama about three angels coming down to earth to advise the architect rebuilding Canterbury cathedral after a fire. Sayers found this response frustrating — she saw both the themes of a good whodunnit and a religious play as facets of the same search for truth. This just fuelled her desire to do more non crime writing, however, to prove that she was more versatile that her reviewers assumed.
“The Canterbury experience created a new Dorothy L. Sayers. From then on, she became a public person, a figure of authority, whose opinions were increasingly sought, not only on detective fiction, which had long been the case, but more important, on religious drama and the tenets of the Christian faith.”
Sayers, who had always been anxious about money and security, suddenly found new doors opening to her beyond the literary niche she had inhabited for the last decade and a half, and she ran through them. The Sunday Times, where she had been reviewing detective fiction for the past two years, started asking her to contribute articles on religious subjects. The BBC got in touch wanting her to write a religious play for children to be broadcast on the radio, and when the resulting drama He That Should Come was a roaring success, to follow it up with more. She was even asked back to Canterbury to create the play for the 1939 festival. She was as busy as she had been in the early 1930s, but with new, fresh projects that often involved extensive collaboration with other people. No more was she sitting alone in her study, toiling over two novels at once.
Although that second Canterbury play, The Devil to Pay, was also well received, its run was cut short by the advent of the Second World War. It transferred to the West End in August 1939, just a few weeks before Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September. Seeing the direction that things were going and wanting to do something to help, Sayers had already offered her services as a writer to the Director of Public Relations at the War Office, and ended up on the Authors Planning Committee at the Ministry of Information.
Earlier in the year, Sayers’s longtime publisher, Victor Gollancz, had asked her to put together a short book that would serve as a “Christmas message to the nation”. Drawing on some lectures and talks she had given since her profile as a writer on religious and moral subjects had grown, she put together a volume titled Begin Here, which ambitiously tried to tell the whole history of civilisation and put the oncoming war into context against it. Sayers herself said that she wrote it with “indecent haste” to satisfy Gollancz’s request and it’s a strange and uneven book, but as a record of how she was thinking at the start of the war, it’s unparalleled. Take this sentence for instance:
“We are lost and unhappy in a universe that seems to make no sense, and cling to science and machines and detective fiction, just because, within their limited fields, the problems do work out, and the end corresponds to the intention.”
And this, which reads to me like something Peter Wimsey might have said to Harriet Vane at the crisis point of a case
“We are like a man riding a bicycle on a tight-rope across the Niagara Falls: we cannot go back, we dare not stop, we must go forward and keep our balance if we are not to fall into destruction.”
Despite her recent run of success, and her new creative vigour beyond her crime fiction, Sayers felt, like everyone else, that the world as she knew it was on the end of a precipice. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but so was her career.
After the break: Peter Wimsey’s war trauma
Peter Wimsey lives between the pages of the novels that Sayers wrote about him in the 1920s and 1930s, and he also comes alive anew every time a new reader discovers her work. But in his author’s hands, Wimsey really only lived between 1923 and 1937. He first appeared in 1923’s Whose Body?, and his last really substantial appearance was in the novelisation of Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937. He was entirely a creation of the interwar years, of the golden age of detective fiction, and unlike the sleuths of other queens of crime, like Roderick Alleyn and Albert Campion, he had almost no wartime existence.
I say almost, because Sayers didn’t let the curtain fall on him with the end of Busman’s Honeymoon. She did start another full length Wimsey novel after the play was completed in 1936 and wrote several chapters of it before putting it aside to focus on her plays for Canterbury and the BBC. That book, Thrones, Dominations, was later completed after her death by Jill Paton Walsh and it does pick up where Busman’s Honeymoon leaves off, with a married Wimsey settling into life in London after the criminal excitements that followed his wedding. Events overtook Sayers and her characters, though – the book includes material about the death of King George V and the accession of his son Edward VIII, who would reign for less than a year before abdicating. Political events at home and in Europe overtook Sayers’ plot, and she put it aside and never picked it up again.
Wimsey does appear in handful more short stories, published over the next few years — Striding Folly, The Haunted Policeman, and Talboys, but there are no more major works featuring him. Sayers was still thinking about him once the war began, though because between November 1939 and January 1940 she wrote eleven letters for the Spectator about how the Wimsey family were reacting to the war. I think with hindsight it can sometimes seem like she dropped detective fiction and her regular characters with total finality in about 1937, but her turn away into other work was far more gradual than that.
Meanwhile, in the early years of the war, Sayers was very in demand for her religions writing and her talks, as Britain grappled with the evils of war and the need to keep up morale. Sayers did briefly get involved with the war effort directly, when she was asked to draft some information pamphlets as part of the propaganda effort, but the Ministry of Information reportedly found her difficult to work with and quickly dropped her from the project. The BBC were very keen on her, though, and she wrote a number of works on religions themes for both children and adults that were broadcast in the first three years of the war. This culminated in The Man Born to Be King, a twelve part retelling of the life of Jesus Christ broadcast monthly in 1941 and 1942. Barbara Reynolds declared this and another radio play she wrote at this time, The Mind of the Maker, Sayers’ best work. I’m not sure I can agree while Gaudy Night is still in existence, but I think this view certainly reflects the regard that Sayers herself had for the work she did during the war.
But although she wasn’t writing wartime mysteries about Peter Wimsey, there is still plenty about war in her detective fiction. War and its consequences is present almost from the moment that she introduces the character in 1923’s Whose Body?. Wimsey describes himself as having shell shock, while his mother talks about the nightmares he has had since returning from the trenches and the breakdown he suffered in 1918.
Sayers elaborates on this in later work, and explains how Wimsey’s post trauma response is particularly connected to the need to give orders, having had to give the orders to so many men to go to their deaths during the war. This is an intriguing psychological trait for a detective, a figure that usually in the golden age style embodies certainty and decisiveness. Sayers develops this theme throughout her eleven Wimsey novels, showing how he struggles with the practical results of the justice that he administers, with the end of a case often triggering a shell shock relapse. As the critic Gill Plain puts it, “death on the battlefield becomes interchangeable with death on the scaffold” for him. There are few better portrayals in detective fiction of what war and trauma can do to someone.
Although the shell shock is there from the very start, Sayers did develop and change Wimsey as a character through the 1920s and 1930s. She said of this process that “Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook. And all this would have to be squared somehow with such random attributes I had bestowed on him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots.” She did this because she wanted to write more complex, involved novels, and when you think about it, it makes sense — the Peter Wimsey of Clouds of Witness would never have fitted into Gaudy Night.
He changes so much over the course of those 11 books, far more than the sleuths of any other queen of crime did over their much longer lifespans. PD James noted this, and expressed her feelings on it well: “The change from the Wooster-like, monocled, man about Town of Whose Body? to the sensitive guilt oppressed scholar sobbing in his wife’s lap in Busman’s Honeymoon is less a development than a metamorphosis.”
And fear of war is a big part of the character that Peter Wimsey becomes. In 1935’s Gaudy Night he is working for the Foreign Office, sent overseas to smooth out diplomatic arguments that threaten to escalate into conflict in the febrile atmosphere of mid 1930s Europe. He feels the oncoming war much more keenly than any other character, saying at one point to his valet and former batman Bunter, “It’s coming, it’s here; back to the army again, sergeant”. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that this fear was, in part, Sayers’ own.
Part of this evolution of Peter Wimsey from a veteran of one war into someone doing everything he can to avert the next one has to do with Harriet Vane — the character that Sayers introduced in 1930’s Strong Poison to be Wimsey’s foil and match. I’ve talked in more detail about their relationship and the interpolation of romance into a whodunnit that Sayers achieved in this way in a previous episode, but Harriet has an important function in relation to the war too.
She is in a sense the detective of Peter’s own story, and as their relationship develops she helps him to open up and reveal more of his anxiety and fear to the reader. As the books go on, Harriet also begins to usurp Wimsey as Sayers’s hero. In 1932’s Have His Carcase, she discovers the body, handles the crime scene and then calls in Peter to consult, while in 1935’s Gaudy Night she runs the whole case until the last few chapters. This rise to prominence seems to mirror what was happening in real life, as women increasingly stepped into roles traditionally occupied by men as the 1930s wore on.
More than that, the eventual marriage of Peter and Harriet represents a place of safety, a sort of domestic normalcy amid the worsening chaos in the wider world. Busman’s Honeymoon presents this in microcosm — the newlyweds defend their honeymoon home from the besieging forces of murder and intrigue, stubbornly persisting in their happiness in spite of all the obstacles, big and small, that are thrown in their way.
In the epistolary prologue to the novelised version of Busman’s Honeymoon, Harriet worries that if there is another war, Peter will be sent abroad by military intelligence and will be in great danger. Jill Paton Walsh ran with this suggestion in her continuation novels, most notably in A Presumption of Death, which is set during WW2. For all that he is terrified of another war, we know that Peter Wimsey will do his duty again. Although of course this isn’t Sayers work, Walsh’s meticulous research and adherence to even the smallest of Sayers’ suggestions gives us a blurry picture of what she might have intended for her characters post 1939.
For the first few years of the war, Sayers was completely taken up with her religious writing and speaking. But then in 1943 she began to withdraw from that too, especially after the furore caused by the backlash to her radio play The Man Born to Be King, which some conservative Christians objected to because she cast an actor to play Jesus Christ and gave all of the biblical characters dialogue in modern English. Frustrated with the adversarial nature of these debates and feeling that she didn’t have many original ideas left to contribute, she began declining invitations and opportunities. She didn’t use the time to pick up Peter Wimsey again, however, feeling that it wouldn’t be right to write detective fiction while Britain was at war. She didn’t want to give the false impression that human evil had one neat, surprising solution. From 1943 her attention was consumed by a new project — her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which would occupy her for the rest of her life. Her husband was in poor health, too, and the war was taking its toll on everyone. Detective fiction had been the great obsession of her life through the 1920s and 1930s, but now she had other ideas for what to write. She didn’t want to go backwards.
Sayers did pick up with the Detection Club after the war, though, as we heard in last week’s episode about Josephine Tey, And in 1949, she wrote a letter to fellow detective novelist Henry Wade, and in it is to be found her clearest and most articulate explanation for why she would not write any more mysteries.
“There are a thousand and one reasons why I can feel no desire for it; but the chief one is that, like Conan Doyle, I have been so much put off by being badgered to do it when I was wrapped up in other things that the mere thought now gives me a kind of nausea. When I started on my plays in 1937. I fully intended to do another novel some day – though novels are terribly slow and tedious after the briskness of stage work. But the infernal nuisance of writing letters to sentimental Wimsey-addicts, telling editors that I cannot switch my mind off any job to write crime-stories for them, and I dare not start it up again, even if I wanted to . . . ! A new mystery story now would probably run me into super-tax – so brilliant is this government in devising discouragement for the dollar-earners. But the chief reason is, as I have said, that I have become sickened by importunity, and that the thought of being pushed and hallooed into the old routine fills me with distaste.”
Everything you need to know about Dorothy L Sayers is contained in those few lines. She was stubborn, truculent, hopeful and eccentric. By this point in her life, nobody was going to make her do anything she didn’t want to do.
Even though her reign was brief and intense, she’ll always be a queen of crime.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find details about all the books I mentioned in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. The last Shedunnit episode of the year will be out in two weeks’ time.