Sayers’s Daily Grind

Captain Oswald Atherton "Mac" Fleming, detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey, Montague Egg, S.H. Bensons, Thomas of Britain, Uncategorized
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (June 3, 1893 –December 17, 1957) was a novelist, playwright, essayist, translator, copywriter, and poet. She is most famous for writing the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels and short stories, but she was also a serious student of ancient and modern languages who translated Dante and wrote the scripts for a brilliant but controversial cycle of radio dramas on the life of Jesus.
In 1924, when she was 30, Sayers secretly gave birth to an illegitimate son, John Anthony who was cared for by her aunt and cousin and passed off as her nephew to friends. Two years later, she married, not the father, but a Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a crapulous Scottish journalist, and they both worked for a living, until he was invalided out of his employment due to worsening health as a result of wounds received during the Great War. The marriage was not a happy one, because of Mac’s drinking, truculence and his domineering attitude towards his wife (which nevertheless proved unfruitful because of Dorothy’s strong spirit). He died in 1950.
During their years together, Sayers held down a job as a copywriter at S.H. Bensons, an advertising firm, and would write in the evenings after work. In the nine years that she worked there, she managed to produce seven full-length Wimsey books, and one volume of short stories. The average length of these books was about 90k words. But that was not all her output. She was a member of the Modern Languages Association from 1920 and contributed to their journal as well as penning a translation of Tristan and Iseult, which was written by Thomas of Britain in the twelfth century; she also contributed detective stories featuring Wimsey and Montague Egg to various magazines. All this she managed to accomplish while running a household, attending to chores, scrimping and saving and continuing her academic studies. In 1929 she left Bensons to concentrate on her writing. Latterly she became famous as a lecturer on religious subjects, wrote many articles and letters, and in the 1940’s began to translate Dante, for which she had to teach herself Italian.





Hers is a story of dogged effort, sometimes under adverse circumstances, that paid off. She always expressed mild distaste for the writing of detective fiction because she felt it wasn’t “serious” work. Serious or not, her detective books have become classics of the genre and eventually brought in enough income that she did not need to worry about money again. In the end, Dorothy L. Sayers became a household name and secured her place as a doyenne of twentieth-century detective fiction.

The Classic Whodunit

Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hercule Poirot, Janet Evanovich, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mary Higgins Clark, P.D. James, Uncategorized, whodunit

When I was about ten years old, a school friend lent me a copy of an Agatha Christie whodunit. It was a revelation to me. Not only was the book relatively short – which for me was a sine qua non – but I got a great deal of pleasure from trying to work out who the murderer was and discussing it with my friend.

Agatha Christie is, of course, the world’s best-known mystery writer of all time. Her books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over two billion copies. Apart from the Bible and Shakespeare she is top dog in terms of sales. Her oeuvre covers 78 mystery novels, 19 plays, and over 100 short stories. This is a staggering output. In fact she was so prolific that she once wrote an entire novel over the course of one weekend: Absent in the Spring under the name Mary Westmacott.

My own personal favorite was Hercule Poirot, the Belgian bon-vivant detective who appears in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories. I loved the way he hardly seemed to do any detective work: a question here, a conversation there – and always with very little in the way of hard facts until right near the end. The classic conclusion is where he gathers all the suspects together in the same room and says something like, “I suppose you are all wondering why I have gathered you here. One of you is the murderer…”

It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me how gruesome those books were. Poisoning, bludgeoning, stabbing, hanging, shooting – all horrible ways to end one’s days. And there I was at the tender age of ten reading one after the other. Perhaps what makes the whole thing less horrific is the way in which the detective treats it, not as the snuffing out of a human life, but as an intellectual conundrum that has to be solved. The characters were all cardboard cutouts – the colonel, the doctor, the nurse, the governess, the young couple etc..

They were all taken from her stock of regular characters albeit with the names changed for each book. And that lack of real humanity is what made it acceptable to deal with the murder on a cerebral level rather than as a terrible human tragedy. And that’s also what makes these kinds of detective novels slightly distasteful. If we ourselves had been witness to one of those ghastly murders, we would probably need a course of counseling and Prozac to recover from it. Agatha Christie’s characters take it in their stride (after all, they had already been through it all before in her previous books).

Some of the best exponents of the classic whodunit are women: apart from Agatha Christie, there is Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Mary Higgins Clark, Janet Evanovich, Donna Leon, and so on. Why is that? Perhaps the reason why they are so good at it lies in the natural female ability to empathize with various characters and therefore adopt various different characters’ points of view and emotional reactions. That, of course, is essential if you want to write a convincing whodunit. Whatever the reason, these women have become adept at portraying brutal killings and their aftermath in a convincing way.

Agatha Christie’s novels always wrap themselves up quite satisfactorily at the end with no loose ends left dangling from the end pages. But, paradoxically, the best whodunits are only partly satisfying. If the author has portrayed the characters in a convincing enough way, then we hate to see them disappear when we get to the end of the book. We want to know what happens to them after we have turned the last page. We care about them enough to want to spend more time in their company and resent it slightly when the author has drawn the action to a close. And, ultimately, isn’t that feeling of loss more satisfying than a clever deus ex machina from Agatha?