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The first of my papers. . .

December 19th, 2005 · No Comments

Okay, you guys want it, you get it. :P Here’s my Dorothy L. Sayers paper. It’s condensed down from a presentation I gave in class in which I explored the time in which Sayers wrote, and compared her to several of her contemporaries on both sides of the pond. I’m not sure how good it is, but it’s what I wrote. :P

Dorothy L. Sayers in Her Time

Harriet Vane, as a character, bears a strong resemblance to Dorothy L. Sayers herself—a woman
with strong convictions, an Oxford education, a brilliant mind, a strong religious ethic that
sometimes manifests itself in odd ways, and, most importantly, a writer of mysteries. Many
believe she is simply a self-insertion, and that Sayers was so enamored of her own greatest
character, Lord Peter Wimsey, that she wrote Harriet and Peter’s love story as a kind of wish
fulfillment. Of course, if you read much of Sayers on her own work, it is clear that she became
heartily sick of Lord Peter by the time she wrote Strong Poison, and in fact stated that she began
the novel intending to marry Peter off and discontinue with the Wimsey series (Haycraft 211).
But Sayers did put a lot of herself into Harriet Vane, as she did all of her characters in varying
amounts. Of particular interest to me was her decision to make Harriet a writer of mystery
stories. Sayers believed that mysteries could indeed be “real literature,� and tried her best to
make her own writing so. As I became better acquainted with Sayers and her contemporaries, I
realized more fully than ever just how unique Sayers was, and still is.

Sayers wrote in what is now commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Mystery, of which she
was one of the principal authors. This period is generally defined as the years between World
War I and World War II in Britain, with the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The
Mysterious Affair at Styles
in 1920 as the most commonly cited beginning. Ngaio Marsh and
Margery Allingham joined Sayers and Christie as the major writers of the period. Although the
mystery as a genre had been around for quite a while in the writings of authors such as Edgar
Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and of course Arthur Conan Doyle, it was during this period that the
genre really came into its own, as the writers of mystery stories made a conscious effort to
improve their own writing and the writing of mystery novels in general.

One of the unique aspects of the period is the codifying of rules or guidelines for writing mystery
stories. In 1928, S.S. Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright) published “Twenty
Rules for Writing Detective Stories� in American Magazine. These rules contain an interesting
insight into the kind of stories that were being written during the Golden Age. A few of the more
interesting ones are these:

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to
the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse
the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far
too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and
expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary
dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no
“atmospheric� preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of
crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to
the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a
successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and
character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

20. I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story
writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are
familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the
author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the
culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the
brand smoked by a suspect. (b)The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the
culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dog that does
not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f) The final
pinning on the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected,
but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h)
The commission in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The
word-association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually
unraveled by the sleuth. (189–193)

Another author, Ronald A. Knox, also attempted to codify a set of rules for the writer of the
mystery story, in “A Detective Story Decalogue�:

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must
not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

II. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

III. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

IV. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will
need a long scientific explanation at the end.

V. No Chinamen must figure in the story.

VI. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an
unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

VII. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

VIII. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced
for the inspection of the reader.

IX. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts
which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly,
below that of the average reader.

X. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been
duly prepared for them. (194–196)

Perhaps the most interesting of these sets of rules are those which Dorothy L. Sayers herself had
a hand in writing. In approximately 1929, Sayers, Anthony Berkely, and Ronald A. Knox
founded the Detection Club, a highly selective club of writers of mystery stories. Membership
was by invitation only, and required that the initiate answer questions such as (among other
things) the following:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes
presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them
and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine
Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery- Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?

Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?

Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs,
Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen,
Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and for ever to forswear Mysterious
Poisons unknown to Science? (198)

These attempts to establish rules for the writing of mystery stories demonstrates just how
seriously the genre was taken at the time Sayers was writing, and gives us a clue as to just what
kinds of things one found in the stories of less accomplished writers. The result of this effort was
a large body of clever mysteries which generally adhered to a specific formula. There is nothing
really wrong with this type of story; some of my own personal favorite writers, such as Georgette
Heyer and Erle Stanley Gardner, wrote almost exclusively to a formula. Some of the most
entertaining mystery stories are those which utilize the formula and the rules, and yet still find
clever ways to play around with them in ways the audience wouldn’t expect.

It is interesting to note, however, that these rules which Sayers seemed to take so seriously and
even helped to write, were sometimes completely ignored by her, often to great effect. If Sayers,
for example, had followed Van Dines’s rule number 3, we would now be missing such works as
Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. From the beginning
of her writing career, Sayers set out to write something, as she put it, “less like a conventional
detective story and more like a novel� (208). Indeed, despite the rules which she herself helped to
make, Sayers claimed that “if the detective story is to live and develop it must get back to where
it began in the hands of Collins and Le Fanu, and become once more a novel of manners instead
of a pure crossword puzzle. . . it is not only that the reader gets tired after a time of a literature
without bowels; in the end the writer gets tired of it too, and that is fatal� (209). Sayers, too, was
determined to allow her characters to grow and develop over time, unlike the vast majority of
detectives of the time, such as Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who stayed the same, year in and year
out. Sayers stated that “any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and
attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of nine or ten
volumes� (210). When it came time for her to marry Peter off “and get rid of him� in Strong
, Sayers found that she could not do it:

I had landed my two chief puppets in a situation where, according to all
conventional rules of detective fiction, they should have had nothing to do but fall
into one another’s arms: but they would not do it, and that was for a very good
reason. When I looked at the situation I saw that it was in every respect false and
degrading; and the puppets had somehow got just so much flesh and blood in
them that I could not force them to accept it without shocking myself. (211)

Sayers knew, almost instinctively, when the story she wanted to write demanded that she break a
few of the rules that she herself had helped create, and which of the rules were okay to break.
Sayers realized, as many less gifted writers did not, that the code of the mystery was, as Captain
Barbossa of the Black Pearl might say, “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.� This
realization sets Sayers apart from the vast majority of her contemporaries, however enjoyable
those works might otherwise be. In writing such stories as Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy
, Sayers was truly ahead of her time, and writers such as P.D. James and Laurie R. King
now follow in her footsteps.

The Golden Age of mysteries was in many ways not a culmination, but a beginning. The efforts
of those who cared about the genre resulted in great improvements, and authors like Agatha
Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham enjoyed great commercial success. Dorothy
Sayers did, too, but her novels stand out from all the rest. By caring enough to create rules but
being smart enough to know when to break them, Sayers created more than just a detective story:
she created literature.

Works Cited

Haycraft, Howard. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.

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