“Is Dorothy L. Sayers still worth reading?” Well I’ve been reading her lately (in anticipation of the Taproot Theatre’s upcoming production of Gaudy Night), and my unsurprising answer is yes, but why? After all, her hero – Edwardian aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey – seems at first blush to be just the kind of plummy, pompous plutocrat that we’ve lost all taste for. Although Sayers’ works are drenched in the sort of stylish tweedy Englishness that enthralls Downton Abbey fans, they have not one jot of the latter’s sympathy to the plight of those below stairs, siding firmly and unselfconsciously with the snobs. Wimsey’s man Bunter (one of the great butlers) makes Jeeves look like an anarchist, so well does he know his place.
But then in Strong Poison, halfway through Wimsey’s career, things take an interesting turn as Sayers herself, in the thinly-veiled person of mystery writer Harriet Vane, steps into the dock, accused of murdering her bohemian lover, and is instantly recognized by her sleuth as both innocent, and (as Sherlock Holmes would ever refer to Irene Adler) as The woman, for him at any rate. Their protracted and somewhat awkward courtship continues in Have His Carcase culminates in Sayers’ acknowledged masterpiece, Gaudy Night, which is not much of a mystery at all.
There is no murder in Gaudy Night (not de rigueur, but generally seen as good form in a whodunit); the plot is slow moving and filled with involved conversations on topics social and academic; the great detective does not arrive on the scene until well into the longish book, and the puzzle is quite lame, especially by the standards of Golden Age mysteries with their ingenious fretwork plots involving rare poisons, locked rooms and least likely suspects. Yet it is inarguably Sayers’ best work.
This owes to the deeply personal nature of the work. From the start, Vane’s views, conflicts and vulnerabilities were Sayers’ own. Although it was not well known at the time, Vane’s status as a somewhat fallen woman, which owes less to accusations of homicide than to having lived with a man, was something that Sayers deeply understood as the mother of a child out of wedlock. Depicting the increasingly erratic defacements and slanders of a poison pen set loose amidst a women’s college at Oxford, Gaudy Night affords Vane/Sayers much room to explore her views on education and the role of women in modern society, but our attention keeps coming back to the tension between Vane and Wimsey, creator and creation, as they gradually peel back the bluff exterior and uncover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, becoming more fully human in the process.
The result was the arrival of an altogether different kind of crime novel with a more complex and human kind of hero(ine), and a multi-volume model for complex character arcs which set a standard still aspired to by mystery writers today. In other words, for mystery fans, Dorothy L. Sayers is a must read.