Last week for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, I wrote a piece on Gaudy Night, which I envisaged being quite controversial but in fact it turned out a lot of people loved Gaudy Night as well. This week I am only maybe being slightly less controversial by suggesting 5 Sayers novels to try and only 1 to avoid and I imagine many readers will have very different opinions to myself. But it is always great to hear other people’s opinions and I hope it give some ideas to the Sayer novice. I do like more than 5 of her novels, but considering the relatively small oeuvre of her work (in comparison to Marsh and Christie), I didn’t want to end up recommending the majority of her work, as that would somewhat defeat the purpose of the list. In my choice of recommendations I have tried to give suggestions from different stages of her career, in order to give readers a well-rounded impression of her work. If you think a different novel or two should have been in the list instead, let me know in the comments section below.
1.The Documents in the Case (1930)
This is one of those rare occasions where Sayers wrote without using her serial sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey and even more unusual is the fact that the novel consists entirely of documents as opposed to a conventional narrative text, which is one of the main reasons why I enjoyed it. These documents record events prior to and after the murder of Harrison, who seems to have died after eating lethal muscarine. But is it suicide, murder or accident? Martin Edwards in his book The Golden Age of Murder (2015) suggests that this novel was part of a shift in Sayers’ work, moving from a puzzle to character focus and relationships and character dynamics are key to the solving of this mystery. Moreover, Edwards also informs us that this novel was influenced by the Thompson/Bywaters case (1922), a real life case which several of the Detection Club writers were interested in. Another unusual factor about the book is that Sayers co-authored it with Robert Eustace, a scientist who seems to have collaborated with more than one crime writer on a book, providing the necessary scientific know-how.
- Strong Poison (1930) and Have His Carcase (1932)
Initially my plan was to only pick one book from the Harriet Vane Quartet and that was to be Have His Carcase, as I think it has the strongest mystery plot out of the four, with Harriet Vane encountering a dead body on the beach, whilst on holiday. Not only is there ample detective work by Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey, but I also liked the progression and changes made in their relationship. However, it is because of this I have included Strong Poison, as I realised that unless you read Strong Poison first, you would lack some of the relationship background, as their initial meeting is a fairly dramatic one to say the least. Part of me always regrets having read them in a jumbled up order when I first read them (Starting with the third, then the second, then the fourth and then first- which wasn’t fatal to my enjoyment but still a bit daft).
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
This is definitely one of my favourite non-Harriet Vane, Lord Peter Wimsey novels and it sees Peter working undercover in an advertising firm dealing with both a blackmailing and drug network and a suspicious accidental death. Though the body count doesn’t stay that low for long. Sayers herself, prior to her writing career, worked in an advertising agency and I think this is evident in the way she can vividly recreate it on the page and isn’t afraid to poke fun at it and the mores of writing advertising slogans. I found this novel to have an engaging mystery which was set in an entertaining milieu and when I do get round to re-reading Sayers this will be high on the list. Daringly I also suggest this might be a good book for Sayer novices to start with. I would be interested to see what fellow Sayers readers make of this, as I know at least one fellow blogger who can’t stand the book due to the dialogue style.
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
Going back a little earlier into Sayers’ work, I think this book has another strong mystery at its centre with Lord Peter Wimsey investigating the death of General Fentiman which has many unusual features and more importantly the time of his death greatly affects his heirs’ inheritance. Witnesses either fleeing or lying, pose some challenges to Peter’s investigation. Contributing to the zeitgeist of the time period, this novel also engages with WW1 and its consequences, with male characters for example expressing their disillusionment and suffering, and Martin Edwards also suggests that Sayers ‘gained a first-hand insight into the nightmarish world of the trenches (Edwards, 2015: 193) through her husband Mac who suffered as a consequence of his WW1 experiences.
- Clouds of Witnesses (1926)
This is the earliest book on my suggestions list, being the second one Sayers wrote, whilst dealing with one of the most painful episodes of her life. At this time, she had managed to take time off from work and stay away from her family whilst she secretly gave birth to a child. And family is definitely the focus of Cloud of Witnesses as murder occurs at Lord Peter’s Wimsey family home, currently owned by his older brother, The Duke of Denver. Even the victim is Peter’s sister’s fiancée. Arguably one of Peter’s hardest cases logistically and emotionally (though he laughs this off in Gaudy Night), as his brother is put on trial for the murder. I think the family drama which ensues through this mystery is what drew me to this novel when compiling this list, as it gives the mystery a tense and dramatic atmosphere and also in a way forces Wimsey to not detect in such a detached way.
Special Mention: The Wimsey Papers (1939-1940)
At the beginning of WW2, Sayers wrote pieces for The Spectator purporting to be letters and diary extracts from her characters, who are describing their reactions to contemporary events such as black outs and enlisting. Helen Denver, Peter’s sister in law never popular in the books, works in the Ministry of Instruction and Morale (a poorly hidden reference to the Minister of Information) and this becomes a consistent area of satire. The characters are not just mouth pieces for Sayers, as they remain within character throughout. There is no mystery element or plot to these pieces, but for the Sayers reader who thought they had read everything, they might be of some interest and amusement, as the Dowager is on top form.
And now for the one to avoid…
The Nine Tailors (1934)
Out of all Sayers novels this is definitely one I am unlikely to ever re-read and I imagine if any new reader to Sayers ever read this book, they might understandably never try her works again. So if you are a new reader to Sayers stay well away. Why? Well there is nothing wrong with the initial mystery which involves a corpse in a grave it shouldn’t be in, but the main gripe I think most people have with the book is the excessive amount of detail on bell ringing, which kills the narrative somewhat. Moreover, I think the solution is also a disappointing and possibly implausible one and I don’t think this novel shows Sayers at her best.
One more thing….
Always keen to try new things on my blog I decided it would be fun to do a poll within this post, where you can vote for your favourite Sayers novel. Being a contentious author amongst Golden Age detective fans I am interested to see what the results will be. So have your say and vote now!