Over the past few weeks I have looked at the inclusion of romance and love in mystery fiction positively on the whole. In my first post I did a brief survey into how love features in Agatha Christie’s work – so rich is her work for creative uses of love and romance in detective fiction, that you could easily write a whole monograph or two on it. And over the last two weeks I have shared with you my favourite mystery films with a strong romance element and my favourite fictional sleuthing couples.
Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery blog is hosting the round ups for the Tuesday Night Bloggers this month so check out his blog later today to see this week’s posts and catch up on previous weeks’ as well.
I have only really briefly mentioned Sayers throughout this month, not having had the time to re-read any of her famous Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey novels, of which the last two novels decidedly push the boundaries of mystery fiction to breaking point, if you are a detractor of these books, or into new and uncharted territory if you are a fan of them like myself.
If you were only aware of these four novels by Sayers, if say all the others were destroyed and in a thousand years’ time these four were the only ones left, you wouldn’t blame people for assuming that Sayers was an author who firmly believed in the intermingling of romance and mystery. Yet Sayers’ opinions on romance and mystery are far more complex, as in 1928 she wrote an introduction to an omnibus of crime fiction, which suggests a much more critical attitude, writing in her forthright style that:
‘One fettering convention, from which detective fiction is only very slowly freeing itself, is that of the “love interest.” Publishers and editors still labour under the delusion that all stories must have a nice young man and woman who have to be united in the last chapter. As a result, some of the finest detective stories are marred by a conventional love-story, irrelevant to the action and perfunctorily worked in.’
But it was only two years later in 1930 that her first novel featuring Harriet Vane called Strong Poison, appeared, where Lord Peter Wimsey certainly has an all-consuming love interest. Did Sayers do a complete U-turn?
Re-reading this introduction by her again I think the answer is probably no. I think what Sayers disliked the most, was not the fact love and romance were added into mystery novels, but that they were added in such a poor, ‘perfunctory’ and clichéd manner, which often harmed the detection plot to a minor or large extent. One narrative feature she was certainly irritated by were ‘the heroes who insist[ed] on fooling after young women when they ought to [have] been putting their minds on the job of detection.’ Consequently they invariably walked straight into traps by trying to rescue their lady loves. For me this sort of narrative trope has a much more thriller than detective fiction quality and I can see why Sayers may have wanted it weeded out.
There is the saying that familiarity breeds contempt and in her introduction Sayers suggests that love had been overdone in mystery to the point of becoming a cliché and that the writers themselves were barely putting in any effort into making it a relevant part of the plot. Consequently such romance could have seemed tired, limp and of cardboard thickness. As Sayers’ puts it ‘a casual and perfunctory love-story is worse than no love-story at all’ and interestingly cites Lynn Brock’s The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1925) of this misdemeanour, a story which is going to be reprinted by Harper Collins next year.
So actually in some ways it has been helpful to re-read Sayers’ introduction as it has helped me to see what some of her aims might have been for her Vane quartet, the things she would want to do differently. First things first, based on this section of her introduction and also her comments on female detectives, I think she would have wanted to have an independent, intelligent and strong female, who didn’t neatly fit the mould of the usual female romance lead and I think this is something she achieved. Harriet Vane is not some very young and innocent, ‘immaculate as the driven snow’ 20 something, who relies completely on the strength and experience of the wiser and older man. She is in her 30s and when Wimsey first meets her, she is on trial for having murdered her lover. What a way to start a romance! You could also say at this point that the romance is definitely intrinsically relevant to the plots.
Something else I think Sayers wanted to do differently was the time frame for when her couple would be united, as frequently this takes place over only one book and it is not surprising that this can invariably make the relationship seem rushed and formulaic. Again with her quartet of novels, I think Sayers manages to achieve this aim, as it takes until the third book in the quartet before Wimsey and Vane agree to get married.
This leads me on to my third “Sayers aim,” as a consequence of this longer courtship is that it feels much more realistic than the characters who meet over a corpse and a week later get engaged. Love having a natural role in the mystery novel is something Sayers
strongly argues for in her introduction and this is also one of the reasons why she cites Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) as an exception to the rule that ‘less love in a detective-story, the better.’ E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) is another such exception given by Sayers, as again she argues that the detective in love is made ‘a legitimate part of the plot.’ She goes on to write that ‘while [Trent’s love for Mrs Manderson] does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation.’ Although I didn’t hugely enjoy this book myself and found Trent rather irksome, I can see where she is coming from when it comes to the way love is inserted into the story.
But does Sayers manage this aim in her novels? The love interest is far from perfunctory, even Sayers’ detractors can’t argue with the naturalness of the relationship between Vane and Wimsey. Yet is the mystery plot retained? Sayers herself admits to the difficulties of ‘allowing real human beings into a detective story,’ adding that ‘at some point or other either their emotions make hay of the detective interest, or the detective interest gets hold of them and makes their emotions look like pasteboard.’ Whilst I think it is easy to say the latter does not happen in the Vane novels, it is harder to give a definitive answer on the former issue. It rather depends on which book out of the four you are looking at. For the first two it is easy to see the prominence of detective fiction plot and in particular Strong Poison the romance element works well as it gives the case a more emotionally dramatic quality as Wimsey has a deep personal interest in solving it. But what about Gaudy Night (1935)? There the mystery element or the poltergeist case does not have such an ascendancy, yet I wouldn’t say the story loses its mystery genre status. Then of course we come to Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), which Sayers telling subtitled, ‘A Love Story with Detective Interruptions.’ Here I wish I had a better memory as my recall on this title is meagre. Not because I didn’t enjoy, I definitely remember loving it, but I can only really remember small snapshots of the plot such as the fact that Wimsey and Vane find the body of the person who sold them their home in the cellar the first night they arrive. I also remember how Vane needs to emotionally support Wimsey at the end due to the negative effect arresting the killer has on him. But alas my memory does not accurately tell me the balance between romance and mystery in the book, though my gut reaction is that it is a better balance than it is in Gaudy Night. Anyone else with a better memory agree?
So whilst I can’t give specific percentages of romance and mystery in each book, one thing which can be taken away from how the novels evolve over the quartet is how it is a journey for Sayers as a writer, altering and experimenting with what quantities of romance can be included and in what sort of ways, in order that the mystery aspect is still retained. I think it is a great pity that she stopped writing mystery novels when she did, as we can only imagine what form further mysteries would have taken and how they would have developed her series of experiments in combining romance and mystery.