Wednesday, June 13, 2018

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Dorothy L. Sayers, Scholarly Queen of Detective Fiction)

June 13, 1893—Dorothy L. Sayers, who advanced the art of the detective story when she wasn’t blazing a trail as a female Christian intellectual in the first half of the 20th century, was born in Oxford, England, the only child of an Anglo-Irish minister in the Church of England. Years later, that background would inspire her to write of academe and produce a late-life labor of love—a translation (only two-thirds complete at her death in 1957) of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I was first exposed to Sayers as a teen in the 1970s, when Masterpiece Theatre ran not one, not two, but five adaptations of Sayers mystery novels starring Ian Carmichael as her bon vivant detective, Lord Peter Wimsey— Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Murder Must Advertise, Five Red Herrings, and The Nine Tailors. (Edward Petherbridge played the role in the 1980s.) They proved so popular that PBS got the idea to create the long-running Mystery series.

How much that would have pleased Ms. Sayers is an open question. During her lifetime, she angrily rebuffed filmmakers’ attempts to translate to the big screen any of her 11 novels and several short stories revolving around Wimsey. 

Perhaps she thought that a mere two hours would have been nowhere near enough time to do justice to her creation. After all, Ms. Sayers had spent a great deal of time etching his portrait over the years—endowing him not even with a monocle and “what, ho!” expression, but also a background as a PTSD WWI victim, not to mention three centuries of titled background lineage she invented for him.

My own favorite of her Wimsey novels was Murder Must Advertise. It might have been due to my own background right out of college as an advertising copywriter in a publishing house, but I got chuckle after chuckle in reading Sayers’ description of life in the profession, as presented by a practitioner:

“We undermine ’em with one hand and build ’em with the other. The vitamins we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody’s Piper Parritch we make up into a package and market as Bunbury’s Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompayne, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the damn-fool public to pay twice over—once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands—including you and me.”

Seven years of slaving away in an advertising firm (she is supposed to have even coined the catchphrase, “It pays to advertise”), even while she was turning out one highly regarded mystery after another, gave Sayers an unequaled chance to describe the milieu surrounding a crime with deep acumen. It also amply fulfilled her hope “to make a detective story a novel of manners rather than crossword puzzle.”

Neither as prolific nor as popular as Agatha Christie, Sayers surpassed her in writing style. Although Christie was content to focus on the mystery novel as puzzle, her contemporary devoted far more time to creating compelling atmosphere and characterization, believing this crucial to success. A great admirer of the Victorian mystery writer Willkie Collins, she served as a bridge to later female British crime novelists who would also be acclaimed for their styles, such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell.

Key to any detective novel are secrets, and Sayers understood their power because she harbored a few of her own, chiefly involving men:

*One affair with a married man ended with him leaving her;

*A second affair ended with her becoming pregnant, not marrying her lover, and placing her son in the hands of a cousin, who raised him with the public none the wiser while she was alive; and finally,

*Marriage to an alcoholic invalid that became increasingly nightmarish over a quarter century until he died.

One delight that the detective story affords those who dabble in the genre is the chance to vicariously kill people who have mentally wronged them. In Strong Poison, the woman that Wimsey will eventually woo and wed, Harriet Vane, goes on trial for allegedly administering arsenic to her former lover, Philip Boyes--a pretty strong example of wish fulfillment on the part of Sayers.

In the mid-to-late Thirties, Sayers turned away from the mystery genre and began to concentrate on religious writing and translations. In 1916, she graduated from Oxford as the first woman to earn a first-class honors degree in medieval literature, but now she broadened her knowledge of languages to encompass not merely French and German but Italian in order to tackle Dante. Her friend C.S. Lewis particularly admired her series of religious radio plays, Man Born to be King.

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