Fans of the GAD blogosphere, you are about to be inundated with Dorothy L. Sayers. Now, Sayers has her fans, of which I am not one. But even I will not make the mistake of underestimating her importance to the genre. Despite only writing a dozen mysteries, Sayers had a profound influence on the evolution and popularity of the 20th century crime novel. She created one of the most popular GAD sleuths, Lord Peter Wimsey, and then upped his celebrity by pairing him with Harriet Vane.
Like her contemporary and friend, Anthony Berkeley (and most unlike fellow Queen Agatha Christie), Sayers grew quickly restless with what she saw as the formulaic limitations of the mystery story. While Berkeley kept reinventing himself from book to book, Sayers simply gave up writing in the genre and turned to more intellectual pursuits. However, she continued for many years to write criticism of her fellow writers, and her cogent and witty reviews did a lot to foment the public’s love for her contemporaries and those who followed.
That’s not to say that Sayers didn’t experiment . . . a little. Although eleven of her twelve mysteries feature Lord Peter, one of them, her sixth, was an attempt by the author to move away from the strictures of the puzzle plot and into the realm of the crime story. The real life case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters fascinated Sayers and many of her fellow writers, and she was inspired by the details to write The Documents in the Case (1930). And this happens to be the first Sayers that my Book Club chose to read together.
I’ll admit that I was initially excited because I love mysteries that come in the form of a dossier of evidence. I will admit that the series created by Dennis Wheatley constitutes most of my experience, and nobody can argue that the actual mysteries contained therein are especially scintillating. But the opportunity to examine the documents and physical evidence of a case is kind of fun.
Now, I was fully aware as I picked up Documents, which looks and feels exactly like a book rather than a Wheatley dossier, that there were no buttons or scraps of cloth contained within its pages. What the book, which Sayers co-wrote with scientist and fellow mystery writer Robert Eustace, actually contains are mostly letters, followed by statements made after the murder and during the trial. That makes it pretty much an epistolary novel. I like epistolary novels. I liked Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I loved Janice Hallett’s The Appeal, which consisted mostly of e-mails. I loved Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, which chronicled the first year of a young teacher’s work life through school bulletins, personal messages and letters, and students’ homework, although the only mystery contained here is how a person like me could have read this book and still had the guts to become an educator.
Unfortunately, I did not like The Documents in the Case. I thought it started off okay and then got boring. Having recently talked here about how much I like courtroom cases, the trial in this book was a drag. (Come to think of it, so was the last one we read in Book Club, so much so that I didn’t even review it!) But, hey – this is only my opinion. And it wasn’t a total wash: the opening letters were amusing, alternating between two distinctive voices: one a sardonic but charming poet writing to his fiancée and the other a neurotic spinster sharing her distorted view of reality with her sister. Both of them dwell in the household of Mr. George Harrison and his second, younger wife: the poet, Mr. Munting, rents rooms on the top floor with his artist friend, Harwood Lathom, while the spinster, Miss Agatha Milsom, acts as companion to the Harrisons (although why anyone would want a creature like that hanging about them is the true mystery in this book.)
Despite one disturbing event that occurs between these two characters, they turn out to be mere witnesses to the central events that involve the Harrisons and young Lathom. This turns out to be not so much a whodunnit but a “is this murder and, if so, how was it dun”-nit. Here is where Eustace provided Sayers with a lot of scientific information that she found fascinating because she ends up sharing all of it here. The joys of reading about mushrooms and mirror drugs sadly eluded me, but I have no doubt that this book fascinates other readers, even those huge Sayers fans who might have initially been disappointed in the absence of Lord Peter, Bunting, or Harriet Vane.
I hope I haven’t disappointed everyone with my lack of enthusiasm for Sayers. Clearly, my next read of hers needs to be the most scintillating Wimsey she wrote, whatever one that may be. Meanwhile, after a couple of months of duds, I’m excited about the next two Book Club choices. I’m halfway through our September book, Seishi Yokomizo’s Death on Gokumon Island, which is long but fascinating. And in October we get to dive into Death of Jezebel, which also happens to be the next on the list of my dive into the mysteries of Christianna Brand. So please . . . don’t give up on me!