DOROTHY L. SAYERS: HER LIFE AND WORK

Part One

A BACKGROUND FOR WRITING MYSTERIES?

Dorothy L. Sayers, preeminent and successful mystery writer, lived from 1893-1957. The only child of an Anglican Clergyman, she was born at the Head Masters House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Her father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, M.A. was chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School. He started teaching Latin to Dorothy when she was six, and the importance of religion and education her father imparted never left her. The rectory where they lived is an elegant building located in the village in Huntingdonshire.(1)

THE WORLD WHEN SAYERS BEGAN WRITING

In 1912, two years before WW I began, Sayers won a scholarship at age nineteen to Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages and medieval literature. She found the Middle Ages, particularly the High Middle Ages from 1000-1300,  more fascinating than the Renaissance. Art and architecture flourished, the Crusaders recaptured the Holy Land, codes of chivalry and courtly love set rules for proper behavior, and scholastic philosophers attempted to reconcile faith and reason—a struggle Dorothy dealt with all her life. Achievements of the period included revived interest in the Code of Justinian, the mathematics of Fibonacci and Oresme, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto and the poetry of Dante and Chaucer.

Sayers was much taken with Dante and later translated his Divine Comedy, including an explanation of the theological meaning of what she called “a great Christian allegory.”(2) She considered her translation of Dante her best work. Her translation,  published by Penguin Books in 2009, has remained popular and is frequently used today.

Many authors first write poetry as brief glimpses of their longings or expressions of adolescent angst. Sayers first book, published in 1916 when she was twenty-three, was a collection of poems. She published her second poetry collection, Catholic Tales and Christian Songs in 1918, the year marking the end of WWI, which had been raging since 1914.

Sayers finished Oxford in three years with first-class honors. Women were not awarded degrees at that time, but when that position changed a few years later, she was among the first to receive a degree. In 1920 she graduated with an MA. The same year, when she was twenty-seven, she began working out the plot of her first novel, Whose Body?(3)

“My detective story begins brightly,” she wrote, “with a fat man found dead in his bath with nothing on but his pince-nez [spectacles which grip only by pinching (pince) the nose (nez). Now why did he wear a pince-nez in his bath? If you can guess, you will be in a position to lay hands upon the murderer, but he’s a very cool and cunning fellow….”(4)

THE CREATION OF LORD PETER WIMSEY

It is said no one can write an acceptable novel before age thirty because they simply haven’t lived long enough. When Whose Body? was published in 1923, Sayers was thirty years old. She introduced her protagonist sleuth, Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsy, who would appear in ten of her novels and two sets of short stories. By naming Lord Peter as she did, with the surname of Wimsey (whimsical,) Sayers announced that her mystery novels were meant to be fun with over-the-top characters drawn to star in comedies of manners. They were involved in mysteries to showcase their various personalities, and because writing and reading mysteries was a much-loved British pastime.

Sayers once described Lord Peter as a combination of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, the recurring fictional character in the Jeeves novels of British author P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster, an English gentleman and one of the “idle rich” appears alongside his valet, Jeeves, whose genius manages to extricate Bertie or one of his friends from numerous awkward situations.(5) Sayers’ Astaire/Wooster comparison is most evident in her first five novels.

Joyce Carol Oats, in her March 1998 New York Times essay, “Lord Peter’s Last Case,” described Sayers’ Lord Peter in Whose Body? like this: “ … a drawling, insufferably breezy aristocratic dilettante who winds his way unerringly through the snarl of the plot ….” Oates adds, “Lord Peter’s very whimsey, so grating at the outset…can be interpreted as the artful stratagem of a shell-shocked Word War I veteran who has had to invent a foppish persona to disguise both his cunning and his shot nerves. Lord Peter is a tour de force, superior to the tricky plot his creator has stuck in him in…”(6) As each novel progressed, Sayers developed Lord Peter as a rounded, multi-faceted character.

SAYERS’ PERSONAL LIFE

Sayers met John Cournos in 1921. Whose Body? was in gestation but would not be published for two years. “At age twenty-nine, Dorothy fell in love. It was the first intense romance of her life. Twelve years her senior, Cournos, of Russian-Jewish background, was born in the Ukraine. His family emigrated to England when he was age ten. He lived in Britain in the 1910s and 20s where he started his own literary career. He was one of the Imagist poets but was a prolific writer who was  better known for his novels, short stories, essays and criticism, and as a translator of Russian literature. He used the pseudonym John Courtney. He was involved with a London-based anti-Communist organization for which he wrote the lurid, humorous propaganda pamphlet, London Under the Bolsheviks….”(7)

Cournos wanted Sayers to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage. She wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion. She broke off their relationship.

Her heart broken, Sayers rebounded by becoming involved with Bill White, an unemployed motor car salesman. “She enjoyed the fierce sexual affair and his contact with the working world—perhaps as an antidote to the rarefied and literary air of Cournos.”(8)

After their brief, intense and mainly sexual relationship, Sayers discovered she was pregnant. When she announced her pregnancy, White reacted badly, storming out ‘“in rage & misery.’”

“It is not clear whether she knew Bill was married when she began the affair, but this was, of course, his reason for not acknowledging the child.”(9)

Sayers hid from her friends and family in fear of how her pregnancy might affect her parents, who were then in their seventies. She continued to work until she was six months pregnant, then pleaded exhaustion and took extended leave. She went alone to a “mother’s hospital/nursing home” in Southbourne Hampshire under an assumed name and gave birth to John Anthony on January 3, 1924.(10)

She remained with John Anthony, nicknamed Tony, for three weeks, nursing and caring for him. Her sole responsibility for her child prevented Sayers’ return to her former life and work. As the child of an Anglican clergyman, Dorothy had no family money, no trust fund and no title. Like her character Harriet Vane, she had a classical education, academic connections to Oxford, attachment to the Anglican Church, and, she hoped, an ability to write.

She was conflicted about options she had as an unwed mother versus her role and responsibilities as a woman. She describes her feelings in her book, Gaudy Night, through her character Harriet Vane, who attends a reunion at Oxford and encounters a woman she had known there: “Catherine Freemantle, [Harriet members.] Good God. She had been only two years senior to Harriet. Brilliant … smart … very lively, the outstanding scholar of her year. What in Heaven’s name had happened to her?…She had married a farmer, and everything had gone wrong. Slumps and sickness and tithe and taxes and the Milk Board and the Marketing Board, and working one’s fingers to the bone for a bare living and trying to bring up children …. [Harriet] felt she would rather be tried for [her] life than walk the daily treadmill of Catherine’s life.”

“‘It’s absurd that you should have to do this kind of thing,’ [Harriet says] … pick your own fruit and get up at all hours to feed poultry and slave like a navy. Surely to goodness it would have paid better for you to take on some kind of writing or intellectual job and get someone else to do the manual work ….

“‘What damned waste!’ was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance. All that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn, and drawn far better.”

“‘It’s got to be my job now,’ [Catherine Freemantle says.] ‘One can’t go back to things. One gets out of touch and one’s brain gets rusty. If you’d spent your time washing and cooking for a family and digging potatoes and feeding cattle, you’d know that that kind of thing takes the edge off the razor.’”(11)

In agony over how to proceed with her life, Sayers investigated a family connection. Her aunt Amy and cousin Ivy Shrimpton supported themselves by fostering children. Sayers’ mother had visited the Shrimptons and had written a glowing account to Dorothy of the good job they did with their charges. Sayers wrote to Cousin Ivy, relating a sad story about “a friend” and inquiring about boarding fees and whether Ivy had room for an additional baby.

After Ivy agreed to take the child, Sayers sent her another letter in an envelope marked “Strictly Confidential: Particulars about Baby,” which revealed the child’s parentage and swore Ivy to silence. Neither Sayers’ parents nor Aunt Amy were to know. Cousin Ivy continued to look after John Anthony at her house in Oxfordshire until he grew up. Sayers corresponded frequently with her son by mail but never acknowledged publicly that he was her son.(12)

For all practical purposes, Tony regarded Ivy as his mother. When she died in March 1951 at Horton General Hospital in Banbury, he arranged the funeral. In 1924–25, when she was thirty-one/thirty-two, Sayers wrote eleven letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship, her relationship with Bill White and her relationship with her son. These letters are now housed at Harvard University.

Both Sayers and Cournos would eventually fictionalize their experience, Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.

End of Part One

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Notes, Part One:

The author is indebted to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society for constructive corrections and additions. www.sayers.org.uk.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#Translations

3. Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (Harper & Row Publishers 1923, hardcover. HarperPaperbacks, HarperCollins Publishers 1995, New York)

4. Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1993)

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertie_Wooster

6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/15/reviews/980315.15oatest.html

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_cournos

8. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

9. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#Personal_life

11. Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming, Gaudy Night (Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1936. Avon Books, New York 1968. Paperback, 42-43)

12. Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (Hodder & Stoughton. London 1993, 126.)

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DOROTHY L. SAYERS: HER LIFE AND WORK

PART TWO

HOW SAYERS’ WORK FITS
INTO THE HISTORY OF MYSTERY FICTION

How did Dorothy L. Sayers’ work progress and how did she fit into the history of mystery writing? The fact that she started writing her first mystery in 1920 and wrote until the 1940s placed her within the era known as The Golden Age of Detective Fiction—an era when classic murder mystery novels were produced by authors who followed similar patterns and styles. Many Golden Age authors were British: Agatha Christie, Michael Innese, Phillip MacDonald, and Josephine Tey. Although Ngaio Marsh was from New Zealand, her detective was British.

Americans who wrote mysteries during that time who had similar styles were John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and S.S. Vandine. Americans who adopted a more hard-boiled style were Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Golden Age mysteries adopted conventions that limited surprises for readers regarding plot details and, especially, the identity of the murderer. They were called “whodunits.” Readers often discovered that the least-likely suspect was the villain. Settings were often confined, a favorite being the secluded English country house with its upper-class inhabitants. These “locked room” mysteries are still popular: characters are confined in close surroundings as on a train, airplane, or secluded house where forces prevent their leaving.

Sayers’ contemporary was Ronald Knox, an Anglican clergyman educated at Eton and Oxford, who was well known as a great scholar of the classics. He frequently wrote on religious themes but made a good living from his five detective novels and some detective stories. In 1929, he codified the “ten commandments” for detective stories, which are fun to consider in light of Sayers’ detective fiction and contemporary detective fiction. These are Ronald Knox’s commandments, followed by this author’s italicized comments on current detective fiction:

Rule 1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.                               Current detective fiction sometimes opens in the mind of the criminal and may intersperse chapters from the criminal’s point of view with chapters from the sleuth’s point of view to create suspense. In Sayers’ books read by this author, the criminal’s thoughts are not known.

Rule 2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.                                                                                                                        Today, paranormal mysteries abound. Teens especially find them appealing, and paranormal stories can be very creative.

Rule 3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.                                 We all remember secret passages in Nancy Drew. Secret passages and rooms are generally out of favor now and might be viewed as old-fashioned or considered a sign of sloppy writing.

Rule 4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.                                                                 This is generally true today. Editors call long scientific explanations “information dumps” and caution writers to dribble them in sparingly throughout the manuscript, interspersing them with characters’ physical actions and changes of scene.

Rule 5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.                                                                  I can only conclude that Chinamen had been too frequently portrayed as villains.

Rule 6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.                                                          This is still true. No mystery writer is admired for including accidents or fortuitous events to explain the plot. Only in paranormal fiction can strange events occur, and readers may require a rational or believable explanation.

Rule 7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.                                             Today, if the writer has her sleuth commit the crime, her sleuth is either jailed or disappears, which likely marks the end of the writer’s series.

Rule 8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.             This is still true; the writer must play fair with the reader.

Rule 9. The detective’s friend, “the Watson,” must reveal to the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind. His intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.                                                                                                                               It’s still true that neither the detective’s nor sidekick’s thoughts can be concealed from the reader as a matter of fairness. The sleuth’s friend will be subordinate to the main character sleuth, but it’s not a matter of intelligence. Writers are more apt to portray the sidekick as possessing a different kind of intelligence or skills from the sleuth to create contrast between the characters.

Rule 10. Twins and doubles generally must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.                                                                                                          To have the crime solved by a case of mistaken identity of a twin or double is usually considered sloppy plotting.

The outbreak of the Second World War is often taken as the beginning of the end for the light-hearted, straightforward “whodunits” of the Golden Age. Only during the 1920s and 30s, did Golden Age fiction have the happy innocence, purity and confidence of purpose, which was its true hallmark.(13)

However, Ian Ousby writes in The Crime and Mystery Book, 1997: “The Golden Age was a long time a-dying. Indeed, one could argue that it still is not dead….”(14)

Today, you hear classic mysteries described as traditional mysteries or as “cozies.” The term “cozy” is disliked by some writers of traditional mysteries because it recalls little old lady sleuths knitting alongside cats who solve the mysteries. The term “cozy” connotes to many a silly mystery lacking character development with a plot too weak to be remotely believable. Yet, most mystery writers today work very hard to make main characters grow and develop and make their plots intriguing and believable. The best “cozy” mysteries written today are as skillfully written as literary fiction.

Author James Lee Burke has a “massive commercial fan base and considerable literary respect. He’s been called the Faulkner of crime fiction because of his lyrical, poetic language, his allusions to classical literature, his compelling villains, and his evocative descriptions.”(15)

Other writers of literary mysteries are Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Shadows of the Wind), Elizabeth George, Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones). Hundreds more are listed on Goodreads/Best Literary Mysteries.(16)

John Banville, Booker Prize–winning author, who also writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, reignited this longstanding debate at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. When he writes under his own name, Banville told the audience, he manages to put 100 hard-fought words down on paper each day; writing as Black, he manages several thousand.

In his post on the Guardian UK’s Books Blog, Stuart Evers summed up Banville’s statements: “The intimation was quite clear, Black’s sentences simply weren’t as important.” Evers goes on to say that “at its best, crime writing offers unique insights into society, psychology, and human behavior. It can be both engaging and literate; compelling and well-written. It can be innovative and surprising, but what it can’t be, it seems, is feted in the same way as literary fiction. The most a crime writer can hope for is to be told, as Ian Rankin was, that their novels ‘almost transcend the genre.’ Faint praise indeed.”(17)

There are some lot of sloppy, silly mysteries published, of course, but publishers also release silly “literary” fiction.

The Agatha Awards, awarded annually by Malice Domestic, Ltd., honor traditional mysteries typified by the works of Agatha Christie. Written between the wars, these mysteries seemed to be a celebration of fun, a semi-serious pastime that promised pleasing puzzles. Perhaps readers had experienced enough seriousness after living through World War I.

Traditional mysteries honored annually by the Agatha Awards have these characteristics: a closed setting; no sex or violence; and the murder usually taking place off stage, so the reader doesn’t have to endure reading about blood and guts. These stories usually feature an amateur detective.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ books fit well within this category. Contemporary editors might shorten some of her descriptive passages and pick up the pace of her stories a bit; otherwise, she’d fit right in. Her continued popularity is evidenced by the DorothyL chat room where people worldwide continue to discuss Sayers’ plots, characters, and settings as well as discussing contemporary mysteries.

End of Part Two

_______________________                                                                                              Notes, Part Two

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Detective_Fiction

14. Ian Ousby, The Crime and Mystery Book (Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 1997)

15. James Lee Burke, “The Art & Craft of Perseverance” (Writers Digest, November/December 2011, 34-37)

16. http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/914.Best_Literary_Mysteries

17. http://www.sarahweinman.com/confessions/2009/11/breaking-the-wall-between-literary-and-mystery-fiction.html

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DOROTHY L. SAYERS: HER LIFE AND WORK

PART THREE

SAYERS’ LIFE AND WORK BETWEEN WORLD WARS I AND II

The year Sayers released Whose Body? and met John Cournos, she went to work as a copywriter at S. H. Benson’s advertising company in London, located on the Victoria Embankment which overlooked the Thames. One source reported that Benson’s became the advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, a company that began with a staff of two and no clients which grew into one of the eight largest advertising networks in the world with more than 450 offices in 169 cities.

When Sayers worked at S.H. Benson’s from 1922-1931, she collaborated with artist John Gilroy to create “The Mustard Club” for Colman’s Mustard and the Guinness “Zoo” advertisements, variations of which still appear today. Under the Toucan’s bill as he hoisted a glass of Guinness, was Sayers’ jingle:

If he can say as you can
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do.(18)

She worked at the ad agency for ten years. She was quite successful as an advertiser and coined the slogan “It pays to advertise.”(19) While she worked at the agency, dealt with the tragedy of her love affair with John Cournos and the long-distance relationship with her child, she also began working on Clouds of Witness.

In 1926, she met Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a Scottish journalist whose professional name was “Atherton Fleming.” She married Mac Fleming in April of 1926 at Holborn Register Office, London. He was divorced with two children, which in those days meant they couldn’t have a church wedding. Despite this disappointment, her parents welcomed him into the fold. Mac and Dorothy lived in the flat at 24 Great James Street in St. Pancras, London that Dorothy maintained for the rest of her life.

The marriage began happily with a strong partnership at home. Both worked a great deal, Mac Fleming as an author and journalist, and Dorothy as an advertising copywriter and author. Over time, his health worsened, largely due to his World War I service. As a result, he became unable to work. His income dwindled while her fame continued to grow. He began to feel eclipsed.

Her son, John Anthony, was told that his “cousin” Dorothy and her husband Mac Fleming wanted to adopt him. Tony apparently knew Dorothy Sayers was his mother because, after she married, Tony assumed the surname of Fleming. Sayers and Mac formally adopted John Anthony in 1932 when the boy was eight years old, but his existence was kept secret from most of her friends and all her family.(20) Although  Sayers continued to provide for his upbringing, she never publicly acknowledged him as her biological son.(21)

The year she married Mac, 1926, Clouds of Witness came out. The novel’s title alludes to Hebrews 12:1: ” … we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” Loyalty to another person is a major theme in the book, which is interesting in view of her relationships to Cournos, to her son Tony, and to Mac Fleming.

Whereas many novelists write their most autobiographical novel early in their career, Dorothy Sayers did the opposite. The more complicated her life became and the more she sharpened her writing skills, the more autobiographical information she included  in her work.

Her 1927 mystery, Unnatural Death, was originally titled by Sayers, The Singular Case of the Three Spinsters. Sayers must have had spinstership on her mind as her probable fate had she not married Mac Fleming.

In 1928, she published The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. The Bellona Club of the novel is a quiet, respectable gentlemen’s club for active or retired military officers, but the club is named for Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. Death in the club constitutes what its traditionalist members regard as “unpleasantness.” In this book, Sayers explored the difficulties of WWI veterans.(22) The same year, she also published twelve short stories featuring Lord Peter.

Strong Poison debuted in 1930, the fictional result of her unhappy love affair with John Cournos. Here, Lord Peter first meets Harriet Vane, who is an author of police fiction and is, of course, a thinly-veiled fictionalized version of Dorothy Sayers. In the book, Harriet Vane is on trial for her life, charged with murdering her former lover, Phillip Boyes. Boyes is a novelist and essayist who writes in support of atheism, anarchy, and free love—ideas which were abhorrent to Dorothy Sayers.

Professing to disapprove of marriage, Boyles, Harriet’s former lover in the story, persuades a reluctant Harriet to live with him against her principles, and they lead a Bohemian life in the London art community. A year later he proposes. Harriet, outraged at being deceived into giving up her public honor, breaks off the relationship. This is revealingly close to what happened to Dorothy L. Sayers.

In Strong Poison, when Harriet Vane is on trial for murder, all clues point to her as the one who gave her former lover, Philip Boyes, the arsenic that killed him. But Lord Peter is immediately taken with Harriet Vane and convinced of her innocence. If Lord Peter can’t prove her innocence, he will lose Harriet before he can persuade her to accept his marriage proposal.

Conceivably, Dorothy Sayers would have enjoyed putting arsenic in John Cournos’ soup. Six years after Cournos mislead Sayers, and she ended their affair, her heart broken, she was finally able to fictionalize her story in Strong Poison. Here’s a telling passage from the novel:

“Forgive my asking, but—you were very fond of Philip Boyes?” [Wimsey asks.]

“I must have been, mustn’t I—under the circumstances?”

“Not necessarily,” said Wimsey, boldly, “you might have been sorry for him—or bewitched by him—or even badgered to death by him.”

“All those things.”

Wimsey considered for a moment. “Were you friends?”

“No.” The word broke out with a kind of repressed savagery that startled him. “Philip wasn’t the sort of man to make a friend of a woman. He wanted devotion. I gave him that. I did, you know. But I couldn’t stand being made a fool of. I couldn’t stand being put on probation, like an office-boy, to see if I was good enough to be condescended to. I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage—and then it turned out that it was a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough. Well, it wasn’t. I didn’t like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize.”

“I don’t blame you,” said Wimsey.(23)

Having partially purged Cournos from her emotions, Sayers wrote Five Red Herrings, published in 1931. The story is set in Galloway, a part of Scotland which was popular with artists because of its landscapes. Sayers frequently vacationed there. In the story, Lord Peter is on a fishing holiday in Galloway when Sandy Campbell, a talented painter and notoriously quarrelsome drunkard, is found dead in a stream with a half-finished painting on the bank above.

It is assumed he fell in accidentally, fracturing his skull. Lord Peter Wimsey points out the inconsistency which makes it impossible for Campbell himself to have worked on the painting. Whoever killed Campbell executed the painting in Campbell’s distinctive style, to contrive the appearance of an accident. Six other artists in the region are talented enough to have achieved this, all of whom had public brawls with Campbell in the recent past. Wimsey has to figure out “who done it” and who the five red herrings are.

Jacques Barzun wrote in his 1971 book with Wendell Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime, “Five Red Herrings is a work that grows on rereading and remains in the mind as one of the richest, most colorful of her group studies. The Scottish setting, the artists in the colony, the train-ticket puzzle, and the final chase place this triumph among the four or five chefs d’oeuvre from her hand.”(24)

Sayers 1932 novel, Have His Carcase, is her seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and her second novel in which Harriet Vane appears. The title is taken from William Cowper’s translation of Book II of Homer’s Iliad: “The vulture’s maw / shall have his carcass, and the dogs his bones.”(25) Could Sayers have been ruminating about John Cournos, Bill White, or a combination of the two men when she alluded to the inelegant disposition of bodies?

Sayers’ 1933 book, Hangman’s Holiday, included twelve short stories, four of which featured Lord Peter. Sayers must have worked on those short stories between novels. Whereas all twelve of her 1928 short stories featured Lord Peter, he was in only four of these stories. By 1933, although she wrote that Lord Peter had taken over her consciousness, she might have become less intrigued by him.

MURDER MUST ADVERTISE

Having spent her emotions on Peter Wimsey and on the difficulties of love in her own life, Sayers turned to the more logical and humorous parts of her brain to write Murder Must Advertise, also published in 1933. By 1931, having worked at the ad agency for ten years, she knew the ins and outs of the business and could look back on its peculiarities through a clear lens.

In Murder Must Advertise, Peter Wimsey gets a job as a copy writer in Pym’s Advertising Agency. A young man has recently fallen down stairs inexplicably and died. Agency owner Pym wants Peter to work there incognito to investigate the tragedy. Peter gets the job using his two middle names, Death Bredon. A character asks him how to pronounce his name.

“It’s spelled D-E-A-T-H,” Peter says, “Pronounce it any way you like. Most people who are plagued with it make it rhyme with TEETH; personally I think it sounds more picturesque when rhymed with BREATH.”(26)

Add to this the name BREDON—and you have “death breedin”—a definite clue Sayers is having fun with this novel.

Sayers has Wimsey describe another character he meets, a woman who is blackmailing a married man who works at the ad agency for getting her pregnant: “He took in every detail of the woman who sprang up to face him, from her hard eyes and shrewish mouth to her blood-red, painted fingernails and over-elaborate shoes.”(27)

The woman’s name is Ethel Vavavour, her last name humorously close to Vavavoom, “an expression used to advertise French cars in the late 20th century.”(28)

Mr. Bredon (who is Lord Peter Wimsey), has learned a number of things after a week at the ad agency: “He learned the average number of words that could be crammed into four inches of copy. He learned that the word “pure” was dangerous, because if lightly used, it laid the client open to prosecution by the government inspectors, whereas the words ‘highest quality’, ‘finest ingredients’, ‘packed under the best conditions,’ had no legal meaning and were therefore safe …. that The Morning Star would not accept any advertisements containing the word ‘cure,’ but there were no objections to such expressions as ‘relieve’ or ‘ameliorate ….’ Any commodity that professed to ‘cure’ anything might find itself compelled to register as a patent medicine and use an expensive stamp.

“The most convincing copy was always written with the tongue in cheek …. If, by the most farfetched stretch of ingenuity, an indecent meaning could be read into a headline, that was the meaning the great British Public would infallibly read into it.

“He learned that the great aim and object of the studio artist was to crowd the copy out of the advertisement—conversely, the copy writer was a designing villain whose ambition was to cram the space with verbiage and leave no room for the sketch …. The layout man, a meek ass between two burdens, spent a miserable life trying to reconcile these opposing parties …. All departments alike united in hatred of the client, who persisted in spoiling good layouts by cluttering them up with coupons, free gifts offers, lists of local agents and realistic portraits of hideous and uninteresting cartons to the detriment of his own interests and the annoyance of everybody concerned.”(29)

The plot of Murder Must Advertise gets a bit unwieldy with car chases, unique social gatherings, and romps in the woods that touch on magic realism, tied together with drug runners who use the ad agency to set up drop points for their drug ring. The drug runners murder the employee who has discovered their game and cause him to fall down the stairs.

Lord Peter, alias Death Bredon, while becoming involved in all these shenanigans, also reveals various sides of his personality. Sayers adroitly and humorously describes why each agency employee’s personality makes him or her particularly adept at creating particular ad campaigns. She showcases the comedy of manners prevalent in an advertising agency whose mission is to entice people to buy things they don’t need.

Besides having a lot of fun, Sayers describes the effects of adverting on people and highlights the ethics of the endeavor. Lord Peter thinks, “If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people … afford themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow-grease? He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements … had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of an industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure forever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion ….”(30)

Whimsically, as the book ends, Lord Peter becomes excited about creating an ad campaign of his own.

Murder Must Advertise was the only book by Sayers included in the UK Guardian’s List, “1000 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” She was first to fictionalize life in an ad agency. While she addressed the humor of advertising, she also revealed the power of advertising just before the dark side of that power revealed itself in Nazi Germany.

In the same year Sayers published Murder Must Advertise,1933, Claude Hopkins wrote two books about direct response advertising and copywriting: My Life in Advertising, autobiographical, and Scientific Advertising, which was greatly praised by David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy and Mather Agency.(31)

End of Part Three

_______________________                                                                                              Notes, Part Three

18. Mitzi Brunsdale, Dorothy L. Sayers (Berg, New York 1990, 94)

19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

20. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

21. Barbara Reynolds, op.cit.p. 126

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

23. Dorothy L. Sayers Fleming, Strong Poison (Harper & Row 1930. Avon Books Paperback 1967, 36-37)

24. Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime (Harper & Row, New York 1971. Revised and enlarged edition 1989.)

25. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

26. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 260)

27. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 243)

28. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

29. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 35)

30. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 203)

31. David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man http://www.squidoo.com/top-copywriting-books

_____________________________

 

DOROTHY L. SAYERS: HER LIFE AND WORK

PART FOUR

MYSTERIES DRAWN FROM SAYERS’ PAST

Sayers’ 1933 book, The Nine Tailors, uses the setting of her childhood home at the rectory of Christ Church Cathedral. The church graveyard features surnames of several characters in the mystery. There are eight bells at the church, each with its own name and history. The largest, called Tailor Paul, is rung nine “times when a man from the parish dies. Lord Peter rings the eight church bells in a series of sound patterns … and uses his knowledge of bell-ringing to solve a twenty-year-old mystery.

The Nine Tailors, sometimes said to be Sayers’ best mystery novel, was roundly criticized by Edmund Wilson, a literary and social critic born two years after Sayers, who lived fifteen years longer than she. Educated at Princeton University, he began as a reporter, was managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and reviewed books for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Wilson condemned horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s tales as “hackwork,” and J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings, as “juvenile trash.” He thought the works of Katharine Ann Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were passable.

He was interested in modern culture as a whole, and many of his writings go beyond the realm of pure literary criticism. His early works are heavily influenced by the ideas of Freud and Marx.

He wrote a 1945 article for The New Yorker titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”(32) in which he briefly wrote about Sayers’ famous novel The Nine Taylors: “I set out to read [it] in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practiced in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters …”

He continued, “I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well… but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.”

After reading Wilson’s comments, I scribbled in the margin: “Sour grapes. Jealous of an academic who can also write intelligent, popular fiction.”

Critic Sean Latham defended Sayers, arguing that Wilson “chooses arrogant condescension over serious critical consideration” and suggested that both he and Leavis [another critic], rather than seriously assessing Sayers’ writing, simply objected to a detective-story writer having pretensions beyond what they saw as her role of popular-culture “hack.” Latham claimed that, in their eyes, “Sayers’ primary crime lay in her attempt to transform the detective novel into something other than an ephemeral bit of popular culture.”(33)

Sayers’ 1936 mystery, Gaudy Night, captured her personal experience of Oxford’s academic life. She wrote it when she was age forty-two. In the book, the dons (professors) of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College (a thinly veiled take on Sayers’ own Somerville College at Oxford), have invited Harriet back to attend the much anticipated annual Gaudy celebration, a reunion. Harriet returns to Oxford and rediscovers her old love of academic life.(34)

However, the mood turns sour when a lunatic begins a series of malicious pranks including poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs and vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder at the college, Harriet asks her old friend Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate. The attacks at Oxford build to a crisis, the college community is almost torn apart by suspicion and fear, there is an attempt to drive a vulnerable student to suicide, and a physical assault on Harriet almost kills her. As Harriet and Peter wrestle with the case, Harriet is forced to examine her attraction to academia as an intellectual and emotional refuge. In light of what she has discovered about herself, she has to re-examine her ambivalent feelings about love and marriage and her relationship with Wimsey.

Harriet (who represents Sayers), always agonized over the pull between her heart and her head. Intellectual by training and temperament, she fell completely in love once, only to be emotionally bludgeoned. So, in her novels, she evaluates her relationship with Peter Wimsey as an intellectual exercise. She finally gives in to her heart. At the end of Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane finally accepts Wimsey’s marriage proposal.

MYSTERIES MIRRORING SAYERS’ ADULT LIFE

Sayers’ 1937 novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, (which began as a play) was her eleventh and last novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and her fourth and last novel to feature Harriet Vane. Here, Wimsey and Vane marry and spend their honeymoon at Talboys, an old farmhouse in Hertfordshire which he has bought her as a present. The honeymoon is intended as a break from their usual routine of solving crimes (him) and writing about them (her), but it turns into a murder investigation. The seller of the house is found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with his head bashed in.

Peter’s and Harriet’s relationship, always complex and painfully negotiated, is resolved during the process of catching the murderer and bringing him to justice …. Initially, Peter withdraws from Harriet in an attempt to cope privately with his shellshock from the war and his guilt at condemning a man to be hanged ….

In Busman’s Honeymoon, Lord Peter may represent Dorothy Sayers’ husband Mac Fleming, who suffered ill health from the war. In the novel’s touching and emotional last scene, Peter comes to Harriet and accepts her love and support in getting through the hour of a character’s execution. His last word in the book— “Damn!”—echoes the “Damn!” which is his first utterance in the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body?(35)

Sayers wrote no more Peter Wimsey novels after Busman’s Honeymoon, but many of her mysteries were made into films and produced by the BBC.

SAYERS, THE INTELLECTUAL

Her interest turned back to the religion of her youth. At Oxford, along with C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, she had been a member of the group termed the “Oxford Christians.” A good friend of C. S. Lewis, Sayers sometimes joined him at meetings of the Socratic Club.

Sayers’ notable religious book, The Mind of the Maker (1941), explores the analogy between a human creator and The Creator as revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Having written children’s plays for the BBC, Sayers wrote a cycle of twelve plays based on specific periods in Jesus’ life titled The Man Born to be King. The plays were broadcast at four-week intervals by the BBC in 1941-42. Both hailed and criticized, the plays were generally considered a great success, both as drama and as Biblical representation. The BBC produced four other versions of them, and scripts of the series were first published in 1943. C. S. Lewis, not particularly a fan of mystery fiction, said he listened to The Man Born to be King every Easter.

Sayers’ religious works did so well presenting the orthodox Anglican position that, in 1943, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity, which she declined.(36) She accepted an honorary doctorate of letters bestowed on her by the prestigious University of Durham.

In 1947, Sayers wrote Creed or Chaos?, a restatement of basic historical Christian Doctrine based on the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Her purpose was to explain the central doctrines of Christianity to those who had encountered them in distorted or watered-down forms, on the grounds that if you criticize something, you better know first what it is.

Many US schools have used her influential essay, The Lost Tools of Learning (1947), as a basis for the classical education movement, reviving … grammar, logic and rhetoric as tools to enable the analysis and mastery of every other subject.(37)

Sayers wrote many essays and other non-fiction pieces which were apparently published in various journals but not collected until after her death. Barbara Reynolds, her biographer, edited and published a collection of Sayers’ letters. The pamphlet Are Women Human? included Sayers’ introduction and two of her essays reprinted in 1971 from her book, Unpopular Opinions. She discusses the equality between men and women.

Dorothy Sayers’ husband, Mac Fleming, died June 9, 1950, at Sunnyside Cottage, Witham, Essex. On December 17, 1957, at the same place, Sayers died suddenly of a stroke.

Sayers’ friends learned of John Anthony’s existence only after her death: he was sole beneficiary of his mother’s will. Shortly before he died in 1984, John Anthony said that his mother “did the very best she could.”(38)

Dorothy L. Sayers’ satire and humor, as well as the intelligence and education she displayed in her books, endeared her to readers from 1923 to the present. She never took her mysteries to be serious academic or literary treatises. In Gaudy Night, Sayers’ mouthpiece, Harriet Vane, says, “After all, my books are only meant for fun; it’s not like a work of scholarship.”

Dorothy L. Sayers was a Christian humanist; that is, she believed humans were made in the image of God with individual worth and personal dignity. She was an intellectual, a mystery writer, a humorist and portrayer of comedies of manners, a playwright, poet  and translator—a complex and talented writer, indeed.

The End

__________

Notes: Part Four

32. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-WIL-18#cite_note-WIL-18

33. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-22#cite_note-22

34. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudy_Night#cite_note-0#cite_note-0

35. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busman%27s_Honeymoon

36. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

37. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

38. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-29#cite_note-29

Complete Notes: DOROTHY L. SAYERS: HER LIFE AND WORK

Author’s note: My apologies for the lack of op. cit., ibid, and for the repetitive links. May these clumsy footnotes serve as clues to what you seek.

The author is indebted to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society for constructive corrections and additions. www.sayers.org.uk.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#Translations

3. Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (Harper & Row Publishers 1923, hardcover. HarperPaperbacks, HarperCollins Publishers 1995, New York)

4. Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1993)

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertie_Wooster

6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/15/reviews/980315.15oatest.html

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_cournos

8. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

9. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#Personal_life

11. Dorothy Leigh Sayers Fleming, Gaudy Night (Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1936. Avon Books, New York 1968. Paperback, 42-43)

12. Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (Hodder & Stoughton. London 1993, 126.)

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Detective_Fiction

14. Ian Ousby, The Crime and Mystery Book (Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 1997)

15. James Lee Burke, “The Art & Craft of Perseverance” (Writers Digest, November/December 2011, 34-37)

16. http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/914.Best_Literary_Mysteries

17. http://www.sarahweinman.com/confessions/2009/11/breaking-the-wall-between-literary-and-mystery-fiction.html

18. Mitzi Brunsdale, Dorothy L. Sayers (Berg, New York 1990, 94)

19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

20. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

21. Barbara Reynolds, op.cit.p. 126

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

23. Dorothy L. Sayers Fleming, Strong Poison (Harper & Row 1930. Avon Books Paperback 1967, 36-37)

24. Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime (Harper & Row, New York 1971. Revised and enlarged edition 1989.)

25. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

26. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 260)

27. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 243)

28. Sayers Society, www.sayers.org.uk

29. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 35)

30. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1933. New English Library paperback 1969, 203)

31. David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man http://www.squidoo.com/top-copywriting-books

32. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-WIL-18#cite_note-WIL-18

33. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-22#cite_note-22

34. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudy_Night#cite_note-0#cite_note-0

35. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busman%27s_Honeymoon

36. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

37. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers

38. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_L._Sayers#cite_note-29#cite_note-29

© 2017 Nancy G. West, author of the Aggie Mundeen Mystery Series.

www.nancygwest.com