Caroline: Should detective fiction be easy reading? Despite their murderous plots, we often talk of these stories as comforting, even cosy — a pleasant way to relax, switch off the brain, and escape from the real world for a while. And they certainly can fulfil that role, with their familiar structures and satisfying solutions.
But not all the writers from the golden age of detective fiction can be described this way. And there’s one in particular who was restless, never quite satisfied with the crime novel’s status quo. She was always trying to push it further and make it do more. She thought critically about the role of the whodunnit in the wider literary landscape. The gratifying repetition of crime, detection and resolution was not for her. Everything that she wrote visibly tried to bend the genre in new and surprising directions.
Today, we’re squaring up to the challenge of Dorothy L. Sayers.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get started today, I need to let you know about a rare opportunity to see a Shedunnit episode live — I haven’t done one of these since 2019, and who knows when I will get to do one again! So if you’d like to catch it, it’s happening at the International Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay on Sunday 11th September at 3pm. Tickets are available now from the link in the episode description or via shedunnitshow.com/events. I hope to see lots of you there.
Caroline: Let’s start by getting acquainted, shall we? Dorothy L Sayers was born in 1893 and published her first mystery in 1923. She wrote a dozen full length crime novels in all, most of them featuring her aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, the character for whom she is best known today. She also co-founded the Detection Club, masterminded several collaborative literary and broadcasting projects, and wrote a number of short stories.
Eric: If I wanted to introduce her I often reach for superlatives and say the greatest writer of detective fiction ever, or, you know the queen of the queens of crime, or if I’m speaking to someone who might be interested in that sort of issue, I could talk about the writer who came closest to overcoming this gap between genre fiction and literary fiction, between low culture and high culture, between popular fiction and serious fiction.
Caroline: This is Eric Sandberg, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong and the editor of Dorothy L. Sayers: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. He is, as you can probably tell, a proud Sayers fan as well as a scholar of her work.
Eric: I talk about her as a smart woman, an incredibly intelligent and well-educated woman who wrote beautiful English, created strong and memorable characters of both sexes, male characters and female characters who live both in their books and sort of off the page as well. Someone who can be very funny, and I guess also a writer who may be in a way that’s unexpected for a Golden Age detective fiction writer will challenge you as a reader and force you to step outside your comfort zone intellectually in terms of your knowledge. You’re going to have to reach a little bit to be at Dorothy L. Sayers’s level.
Caroline: As long term listeners to the podcast will know, I’m also a big fan of Sayers, and I’ve been recommending her work for years. And I’m very aware of what Eric means by having to reach a bit to read her comfortably — her work is full of literary allusions, as well as plenty of quotations that are in languages other than English. She loves starting a chapter with a Latin epigraph and sprinkling her dialogue with French epithets. Over the years that I’ve been doing this show, I’ve become quite accustomed to the messages from listeners who have tried out a Sayers novel on my suggestion, and found that having to use a dictionary alongside their whodunnit is not their idea of a fun reading experience. Which is an entirely valid response, of course. But I do enjoy chasing down references and burrowing through footnotes, and reading with a novel in one hand and a dictionary of quotations in the other is actually my idea of a good time. There can be no doubt, though, that Sayers has a deserved reputation for being challenging to read, and as such, does not command the kind of readership that some of her golden age contemporaries still enjoy to this day.
Eric: To me, surprisingly, Dorothy L. Sayers is not particularly widely read today, 2022, in the context that I’m moving in, in any case. Agatha Christie, for example, still has a lot of name recognition because, well, for many reasons, in part, because of the continuing TV adaptations, but Dorothy L. Sayers really doesn’t have that name recognition anymore.
And you certainly don’t meet a lot of people who read Dorothy L Sayers. When you do meet people who’ve read Dorothy L Sayers, they tend to be enthusiasts who have read all of Dorothy L. Sayers repeatedly.
Caroline: I’m sure that some of those enthusiasts and rereaders are listening right now, raising their eyebrows at the idea that Dorothy L. Sayers is not a hugely popular author. But if we take TV and film adaptation as a barometer of popularity and commercial reliability — which in today’s publishing world, it is, for better or worse — Sayers hasn’t made much of an impact when compared with Christie, for instance. There have been two BBC television adaptations of her Lord Peter Wimsey stories, one in the 1970s and one in the 1980s, split in such a way that each of the novels received just one treatment. And since 1987, her work hasn’t appeared on screen at all.
Right from the beginning, with her very first novel, Sayers was interrogating detective fiction as a form. For her, it was an exercise in literary criticism as much as one of creative writing.
Eric: When Sayers came to the detective fiction form, it was quite early in the golden age. Her first novel Whose Body? is published in 1923. And of course she had been thinking about it and working on it for a few years before that. So it was a relatively new form. You know, choosing when we want to start dating the golden age is a bit of a mug’s game, but it’s certainly not many years before that. No matter who you ask about it.
And one of the things that she felt even in 1923, or if not that early soon after, or if not soon after retrospectively looking back at her own body of work, was that the form had certain inherent limitations. That it was structural, it was plot-based, that it was to a certain extent schematic, that it relied on a certain limited set of patterns or permutations that could be changed and altered but only within a pretty tight framework. And that one of the things that it really couldn’t accommodate was strong, robust characterisation, and the interrelationship between these strong, robust characters. And I suppose to push that even one step further: a rich deep picture of the social background and the social context within which those characters live their lives and interact with each other.
And of course she was, she was aware that that schematic nature of the genre was on the one hand its strength because it allowed for a sort of aesthetic perfection that could be achieved by a real master working with the form because you’ve reduced the artistic materials to a real Spartan toolkit. And with that limited set of means you could create a very effective, very powerful, very harmonious whole, but she felt that there was a loss there, that there was a human element, to put it simply that couldn’t fit comfortably into the standard detective fiction framework. And that’s what she really tried to introduce.
Caroline: It’s worth remembering, of course, that while detective fiction was already popular at the time that Sayers started publishing, it was very far from being highly regarded by scholars or critics. And Sayers bought into that distinction a bit herself — she was notoriously quite snobbish in lots of ways — but she did think that detective fiction had the potential to be deeper and have greater emotional resonance than some of the two-dimensional puzzle novels that were being published at the time.
Eric: She drew that distinction between the detective story and the novel. And what she wanted to do was produce something more like a novel. It might be worth saying that she wasn’t proposing this as an innovation. She wasn’t saying ‘no one’s ever done this before, I am now going to produce a detective story that is like a novel.’ Instead, she was actually looking back to what we might call a previous golden age of the detective novel, particularly the work of Wilkie Collins, that great Victorian writer of detective novels or sensation novels like The Moonstone or The Woman in White, which she thought represented a way forward for the detective novel maybe, or an overgrown path that could be opened up again through her work.
Caroline: In harking back to the nineteenth century, Sayers was trying to bring the best of so-called sensation fiction into her novels, a genre that was known for its use of intense emotion and domestic melodrama. Sterile and mechanical, it was not.
There is a prevalent narrative, though, among those who think and talk about Sayers, that she gradually worked more of this style into her work, retrofitting Peter Wimsey with more depth of character and becoming more experimental as she went. This isn’t the case, Eric says.
Eric: When people talk or write about Dorothy L Sayers, you know, we like to make this case tracking this progression from her earlier novels to her later, but it’s not really strictly speaking true because even in those first works as early as 1923, she’s doing really interesting things with her detective who is, you know, already in 1923, a shell-shocked detective who has come out of the war and has been traumatised by his wartime experience and his engagement with the whole process of detection is deepened and troubled by his previous encounters with bloodshed, with war, particularly with responsibility. There are almost hallucinogenic scenes of the exhumation of a corpse which is needed for investigative purposes but becomes really very much a scene, a first world war trench warfare scene, even though it’s happening in post-war London in a graveyard. So she was experimenting right from the beginning in different ways.
Caroline: This fleshing out of Peter Wimsey is definitely not a late-stage Sayers activity. It’s there in her second novel, Clouds of Witness, too, and it’s part of a subtle widening of the scope of the classic closed circle mystery story.
Eric: By the time we get to Clouds of Witness, she’s provided him with a full family, a brother and a sister in-law and a younger sister who herself is engaged in a series of relationships, et cetera.
And so it ramifies. It’s not ever the closed off world of a proverbial country house where the bridge is down and the telephone lines are cut and nothing gets in or out. Her world is always permeable to the outside, to the point where the actual detective story aspects of her novels can become really very problematic.
One of the puzzles she’s setting herself there is: how do we create the traditional whodunnit narrative when we haven’t really artificially limited our cast of characters to that much more manageable, traditional sort of half dozen that we might encounter in the work of another lesser writer?
Caroline: After the break: the critics bite back.
Caroline: When a writer’s work is very popular or admired in the present day, it can be difficult to get a sense of how they were regarded in their own time, as their books were first hitting the shelves. Which is why it’s handy to have an expert like Eric here to unpack that for us in the case of Dorothy L. Sayers. Did her deviation from the standard whodunnit of the 1920s immediately excite readers?
Eric: I mean, it wasn’t an instant hit. She did quite well. To Britain’s everlasting shame, her first novel was actually published first in America before she was able to get a British publisher for it. So we speak of her as a quintessentially British writer, but she found early her reading public in America, and she remained popular in America throughout her life. And I would hazard a guess that today she is in fact, much more popular in America than she is in Britain. I don’t have any evidence to back that up. It’s just a sense that I have. And there might be a number of reasons for that, but no, she, so she was she wasn’t an instant hit, but she was noticed, and it was a very crowded field in, in the early to mid 1920s. There were a lot of people writing detective fiction.
She was reviewed, and she was generally reviewed in a complimentary fashion. And it wasn’t too long before she was able to give up her full-time job as an advertising copywriter. That’s what she was doing to support herself in London during those years. And basically by 1929, she was able to move over to full-time writing. So that’s actually, quite quick.
That’s, that’s only six years. She did work incredibly hard during that period. She published, we’re looking at, four major novels during that period. Short stories that were published in journals, magazines. She was also reviewing detective fiction. She was editing the omnibuses of detective fiction that she published, so. And she did all that burning the midnight oil or burning the candle at both ends. It’s really an impressive achievement.
Caroline: Right from the start, there was a certain type of person who was drawn to a Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel.
Eric: By the time we’re moving into the 1930s, she was a well-known writer of detective fiction and she had become particularly popular with- I mean, she had a general readership, but she had also become particularly popular with high brow audiences, right? And she was, she was known for this. She was known as a writer of detective fiction who was particularly popular with university teachers, with school teachers, with professionals, you know, with this sort of elite readership.
Caroline: This is where we come up against the challenge of Dorothy L. Sayers. Because not everybody was happy that a detective novelist was getting so much attention from readers who, some thought, should be focusing their attention on more highbrow literature.
Eric: And there was a bit of a backlash and we can see this coming into print quite quickly. Two examples I can give you of that. The first is Queenie Leavis, who was the partner of FR Leavis, the famed Cambridge literary scholar and critic, and Queenie Leavis was one of the first academics who seriously studied popular fiction. So, I mean, she’s an important figure. And she took, in 1937, a real shot at Dorothy L Sayers in an essay that’s known as The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers, which was published in Scrutiny, which was one of the leading academic journals of the time, in which she really argued that Dorothy L Sayers’ reputation as anything other than a low brow pot boiler writer of popular detective novels beneath the serious consideration of any serious reader was utterly undeserved. It’s a really quite savage attack. She’s got some delightful lines in it.
Caroline: Some of those include Leavis’s reference, in the most patronising possible way, to Sayers as an “educated popular novelist”, the cutting set down that the novels display “an appearance of literariness”, and the speculation that a novel like Gaudy Night emanates from a “female smoking room” where such things are enjoyed. It’s an entertaining essay, if not for the reasons that Leavis intended, because the overwhelming impression is of slightly hurt feelings that Sayers had dared to write a popular detective novel about academic and academics (Gaudy Night being set in a women’s college at Oxford). Nor was Leavis the only critic to take a shot at Peter Wimsey’s exploits.
Eric: There was also Edmund Wilson who around the same time, late thirties, early forties, was one of America’s leading literary critics, if not, America’s leading literary critic. And he too, he wrote a series of famous columns that were published in the New Yorker. The most famous of them is “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” In which he, he trashed the whole genre of detective fiction up and down. And he received after he published this column- apparently he received a number of letters from irate readers. Many of whom said, ‘Well, you haven’t read Dorothy L Sayers, go ahead and hate all of this other low brow, trashy detective fiction, but Dorothy L Sayers, she’s the literary detective fiction writer.’ And he read- he went and read a few novels by Dorothy L Sayers and was thoroughly unimpressed. He said that The Nine Tailors was one of the least interesting books he’d ever read, for example.
Caroline: Ouch. Sayers, though, Eric says, didn’t really care — by the late 1930s she was already moving on from detective fiction to popular religious writing, and she would move on again in her literary endeavours after the Second World War to the translation of Dante. She had done what she set out to do with detective fiction, and such was her restless intellect that she couldn’t keep treading water in the same genre. She had new literary horizons to explore.
So where does that leave us, now, as potential readers of Dorothy L. Sayers, a hundred years after her career as a crime writer began? Well, her reputation as challenging does remain, long after the golden age of detective fiction ended.
Eric: Sayers in particular does get tagged with these words that she is more difficult. She is more challenging. She is less approachable. She does place greater demands on readers than some of her contemporaries. I think that this is not generally seen as a good thing because of the type of demands she’s placing.
Caroline: This is where we come back to that habit of constant quotation that I mentioned earlier in the episode, and which for some readers, seems to be a deal breaker when it comes to Dorothy L Sayers.
Eric: Both of her main characters, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane have what is described as a wicked facility for quotation. So they both lard their conversation, their dialogue, with appropriate quotes from the classics: from Shakespeare, from John Donne, but also from more popular literature as well. And they sort of bandy these quotes back and forth. And of course, for a contemporary reader in 2022, I think no matter how thorough a classical education you have received -and I don’t really think many of us have received a very thorough classical education anymore- a lot of these references go right over our heads. So you, as a reader are presented with a couple of options, you can sort of ignore them and say, ‘Well, that’s alright. They don’t really interfere with my pleasure in reading.’ Or you can say, ‘Right, I’m going to be pedantic about this and I’m gonna chase up and follow up every reference.’ Which has become easier in the age of the internet, of course.
Or, and I think this is what happens with some readers is they get sort of offended and they, they get a little bit angry. Well, why, you know, why is this person name dropping? Why is Sayers throwing this material in here that’s so obviously inaccessible? You know, I’ve just been rereading Gaudy Night and she starts every chapter- you know, quotes from the likes of Francis Bacon or, or Richard Burton. These, these are not authors that many of us have an intimate acquaintance with anymore. And it, it does force us to do a little bit of work and think about how much are we willing to invest in the book to get everything out of it.
Caroline: Which brings us back to the question that I posed at the start of the episode. Should detective fiction be easy reading?
Eric: Well, I don’t think it should be. I think it often is, and I certainly appreciate the lighter wing of the genre, depending on my mood. We all read at different times in different places and for different reasons. And there’s certainly a time and place for easier, lighter, more accessible detective fiction. And it, that doesn’t mean it’s bad or inferior in quality.
I mean well, he’s not a, he’s not a writer of detective fiction, but PG Woodhouse, for example, another great writer of the, of the interwar period. You could not be lighter and more success- accessible. You could not be lighter and more accessible than PG Woodhouse.
And yet I would argue he is one of the greatest writers of the English language, of history full stop. You know, he knocks James Joyce to a cocked hat. What can you say? And there are detective writers who we might want to think of in the same way. But on the other hand, detective fiction in its golden age incarnation, and indeed crime fiction, as it goes, onward has proven itself to be capable of producing really sort of deep, rich, challenging texts that reward reading and rereading and are accessible or amenable to strenuous interpretive labour.
Caroline: Let’s be bold, and say that detective fiction doesn’t have to be any one thing. Sometimes we read for the transporting simplicity of a classic puzzle mystery, and on other occasions we want to be distracted by Peter Wimsey’s inability to speak in a straight line without coughing up a Latin verse. Not everything is for everybody. I started making this episode thinking that I would be able to demystify Dorothy L. Sayers, and make the case that she doesn’t deserve her reputation as challenging or difficult. But in revisiting her work with a critical eye, I can see that she absolutely does merit this description. She is challenging, and her work can be difficult to read for a whole variety of reasons.
But if you like crosswords, or word games, or following a bibliographic treasure hunt from clue to clue through index and footnote, then the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers might be just the kind of challenge that you will love.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/thechallengeofdorothylsayers. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Don’t forget, you can see Shedunnit live at the International Agatha Christie Festival on 11th September. More information and tickets from shedunnitshow.com/events
If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.