Dorothy Sayers' Mysteries I
Bill Long 7/9/08
Introducing Clouds of Witness (1926)
I begin this essay with a confession. I have not devoted a lot of my life to the study of detective fiction or to Sayers' work in particular. In fact, I first ran across her while in Seminary in the mid-1970s because of her 1938 essay "Are Women Human?" Thus, until I caught up with Lord Peter Wimsey, her "Sherlock Holmes-like detective," in the last few weeks, I thought of her primarily as a Christian thinker and "proto-feminist," though I have since learned that her major claim to fame is as the creator of this clever detective in about a dozen mysteries in the 1920s-1930s. Though she lived until the 1950s, Sayers may have felt that with the advent of WWII and the brutal butchery of European dictators, the world (and she) really couldn't stomach any more of these nice British detective stories. But before I go much further on this or other things, I would say that the aim of this and the next essay are rather meager--simply to enter into the detective genre as Sayers sees it by focusing on a little of the interesting and evocative language she uses in Clouds of Witness--her 2nd "Wimsey" story.
Yet there is a story about why I am even reading this story. The book is a gift of a friend, who came to my rescue after I missed ipecacuanha in the National Spelling Bee on June 14. Here is the CBS Evening News video showing my mistake. After I missed that word, Steve Hartman, who did the story on me, offered me a bottle of ipecac to consume on film. After all, the thesis of their story on me was that if I miss a word, I eat it (cappelletti; caipirinha). Steve only desisted in his quest to get me to drink it when I offered to split it with him.
But what is the connection between my missing ipecacuanha and Clouds of Witness? Simply this. A friend saw the video and said, "Sayers used that word in Clouds." So, she lent me the book and, rather than eating the book, I decided that I might as well read the whole thing, as a sort of penance for missing ipecacuanha. So, on my trip from Portland to Denver earlier today, I began to read the book. I am 1/4 of the way through, and still no ipecacuanha. But I am finding that, as usual, I am becoming "distracted" by a number of other things, two of which I will mention to you here.
Sayers and the Genre of the Detective Story
The first thing that struck me was that the genre of detective fiction really has evolved since the time of Edgar Allen Poe. In fact, some have argued that there are distinctly different American and English emphases in the genre. It originated late in the 19th century (if we eliminate Poe from consideration because he was really a short story writer) and, in the British tradition, focused on an upper class investigator of brilliant but quirky temperament, a crime scene in a rather closed environment (a train; a country villa), and a sort of cultivated solving of what was, in fact, a rather dastardly crime. In contrast, the American detective story, perhaps epitomized in its earlier form by Dashiell Hammett, focused more on the brutal realities of American urban life (e.g., San Francicso) and the "hardness" of the detective who solves the mystery. One online source has this:
"This detective [in the American stories] is not a gentleman, nor even a hero at times, but a hard-drinking, unsentimental “private eye,”often an outsider to the world of upper- and middle-class values. The traditional setting in the American version is not a country house or a well-appointed train, but the brutal and corrupt city, and the suspects might be anyone in such a vast, anonymous place. The action does not move in a series of orderly steps toward a logical solution, but, instead, careens from place to place and scene to scene. As Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the genre, explained it,“Your private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client.”
If this represents the contrast in two styles of detective writing in the previous century, a segment on NPR today emphasized that detective-writers today are not simply interested in an urban or rural setting and "class" of their detectives. What drives them even more is an exploration into character. The detectives "grow" from story to story or, alternatively, the murder and investigation is an occasion for the exploration of emotion, character, tensions in life.
In that connection, Sayers' Clouds of Witness struck me not simply as being very "British" (murder in someone's rented country estate; Lord this and that was there; several suspects are trotted out), but as being "shallow" from our perspective today. The whole story is the unfolding of the story, aided by the sage observations of Wimsey and others.
But what interested me as I have been working through Clouds is the the other thing--the way she uses language. The next essay shows why I burst out laughing at her words, as well as learned a thing or two...