To conclude the Tuesday Night Bloggers month long look at Sayers I decided to put the spotlight on another of Sayers’ less well-known works (having looked at her salesman sleuth Montague Egg last week). The work in question is Sayers’ contribution to the collaborative work, Six Against the Yard (1936), which involved a number of writers from the Detection Club. Each writer wrote a short story which attempted to produce the perfect crime i.e. one the police couldn’t solve or prove. After each of the stories Superintendent George W. Cornish (a real policeman) briefly suggests how these are not such perfect crimes after all and how the criminal may have been tracked down. Other contributors to the collection were Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox and Russell Thorndike.
Sayers’ story is set within the theatre milieu and I think like Ngaio Marsh she is comfortable with describing this setting in a familial manner. Outside the King’s Theatre there is an ex-actress called Old Flossie, who is has become a permanent fixture selling matches, after she gave up her former profession due to an accident involving fire. Her new job seems slightly ironic in that light.
The King’s Theatre is a huge success now that it is run by actor-manage Garrick Drury, who looks ‘forty-two in the daylight, thirty-five in the lamplight and twenty-five or what you will in a blond wig and spotlight.’ He is currently running and starring in the play Bitter Laurel, which was originally written by John Scales, but due to the terms in his contract, Drury has been allowed to change it from a ‘cynical and disillusioned play,’ with questionable morality to a much more conventional play full of trite sentimental emotions. Throughout the start of the story Scales aligns himself with Judas describing the loose change he gives to Florrie as, ‘thirty pieces of silver… the price of blood,’ which suggests that he feels like he has betrayed his own artistic integrity for financial gain, an idea mooted by his friends albeit jokingly. Moreover, because he did the rewrites he can’t perceive himself like Pontius Pilate and say he ‘washed his hands of the whole beastly thing.’ I think Sayers builds up this guilt ridden atmosphere, with an emphasis on blood and sacrifice to fit in with the subsequent death.
All in all Scales blames Drury for his current mental despair and wishes he were dead. A car accident outside the theatre, which flings Drury through a shop window seems to be an answer to this very wish. Well not quite, as timely help seems to suggest that Drury will pull through, despite his loss of blood. Scales feels he was so close to being free, as Drury’s death would end the show. However, a call for a blood donation opens up the possibility of Scales’ wish being answered after all…
I think Cornish has a point when he suggests that Sayers has ‘been too clever’ and that although:
‘It is…true that, on the facts as… Dorothy L. Sayers has given them, [it] … could not to a jury’s satisfaction… [be proven] that John Scales was guilty of the crime of murder,’
Sayers has in fact ‘failed to establish the fact of murder.’ Consequently it seems that the story can’t be classed as a perfect murder, as it is not certain it is murder. I think Sayers needed to make Scales more directly responsible for the death as within her existing story he only has a ‘degree of moral guilt attache[d] to him.’ At what point does silence or negligence become convictable, especially when the facts are not certain? From a readers’ experience point of view I definitely found it an enjoyable short story, but I can see where Cornish is coming from. The narrative style and psychological aspect of the story are strong, but the lack of definiteness in the case makes it hard to pin down whether a crime has taken place or not.
Over to you
Typing in the phrase perfect murder scenarios comes up with a lot of results, some of them just a bit disturbing to be honest. It is certainly a fertile field for mystery writers with other short story collections devoted to committing that perfect crime. The old icicle as weapon trick features a lot, but other than that there aren’t a lot of methods suggested, more just general principles for a successful murder. So I thought since this post has been looking at the perfect murder I thought I would ask my readers if they had any perfect murder scenarios, from a theoretical, not experiential point of view hopefully). Is a set up like Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train the way to go forward? Or should the killer always act alone? Or do you know of any other novels or short stories which take on the idea of the perfect murder? Two others I have noted are Arthur Upfield’s novel The Sands of Windee (1931) where a means of removing all evidence from crime scene is developed and H. R. F. Keating plays around the word perfect in his debut Inspector Ghote novel The Perfect Murder (1964).
Curtis Evans on Six Against the Yard