Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers (2017)

Source: Tippermuir Books Limited (Review Copy)

taking-detective-stories-seriously

I am aware that my next book up for review was supposed to be Ione Montgomery’s The Golden Dress (1940), but on Tuesday I received this book. I thought I might have a quick glance at it and see what it was like, but to my great surprise I was hooked! Hooked is not really the word you expect to use when describing a collection of reviews but that was what I was. Two key things which made this possible was firstly the superb commentary by Martin Edwards at the start of the book, which contextualises and highlights the diversity of the mystery novels Sayers reviewed for the Sunday Times between 1933 and 1935. The range of mystery books Sayers reviewed was wide, including mystery novels produced by surprising duos; a poet and British Oil executive writing team is not the first combination which comes to mind and even a mystery novel with an added jigsaw at the back! Martin’s commentary also engagingly elucidates on how these reviews are ‘historically important, painting a vivid picture of the evolving nature of detective fiction in the Thirties,’ as well as looking at the criteria Sayers used to judge the various books. Accuracy in details and writing in good English were definitely two areas important to Sayers as this post will go on to show. Though one example I thought quite endearing was that she questioned the amount of time it took a character to cross a passage into a room. In the book in question it is given as 45 seconds, which Sayers felt too long. She supports this by saying how far she could walk in the same length of time and I can easily imagine her stop watch in hand testing it out in person. However, she was also interested in the authors’ aims, writing in one review that:

‘Each story has an author, and each author had an aim in writing it. I believe it to be the critic’s function to discover that aim and then, and then only, to pronounce whether the aim has been well or ill achieved.’

I also liked how at several points in her reviews she admonishes readers for accepting poorly written mystery novels, emphasising that since there are so many of these novels readers can afford to be more discriminatory.

The other key thing which made this such a gripping read was the quality of Sayers’ review writing, often using the reviews as a spring board for examining a facet of mystery writing. Her reviews are also funny, intentionally and accidentally. Laughing out loud was not something I expected to do but it definitely happened, with my dogs giving me some pretty askance looks. But it was hard not to at least smirk when Sayers wrote that Edgar Wallace had ‘gone all gangster in “The Grinning Avenger.” What also made each collection of weekly reviews interesting was that Sayers would find an intriguing or engaging way of linking the various books together. Sometimes this was to do with the titles, settings or subgenre and I think it was a good way of structuring the weekly segments. One of my favourite pieces of creative flair in the collection is when Sayers uses a running metaphor in reviews for one week in 1933 when she describes the authors and their works as horses and jockeys in a horse race. I’m sure Johnston Smith loved being referred to as a ‘thoroughbred’ and ‘stylish-looking youngster’ who took Sayers ‘fancy immensely’!

To showcase Sayers’ reviews I have divided the rest of this post into sections, to highlight her thoughts on specific aspects of mystery novel writing and to compare her thoughts of certain novels against my own, amongst other things.

Grammar Police and Writing in Good English

As I mentioned earlier Sayers is passionate about good grammar and writing in good English, suggesting at the end of one review that ‘something lingering with boiling oil in it should be reserved for tormentors of the King’s English.’ Use a word incorrectly such as Image result for grammar policeprotagonist or gets your tenses in a muddle and Sayers will spot it. In 1935 she even had for a series of her reviews, a section at the end entitled ‘The Week’s Worst English’! Now someone being picky like this could be a bit of a turn off but to Sayers’ credit it really isn’t and instead comes across as either really funny or she is actually making a fair point, such as when she chastises Irvin S Cobb for the following sentence in his novel Murder Day by Day: ‘I baldly am putting down the triple-crowned climax, but putting it down hind part before.’ I definitely loved her New Year’s resolution for 1935, which was: ‘I will not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till I have detected and avenged all mayhems and murders done upon the English language….’ Another interesting thing she did in one week of reviews was to hold a quiz where she gave short passages from various writers’ work. Not hugely exciting passages but passages which reflected the writers’ individual styles and then asked the readers to identify the mystery writers in question. I didn’t do so well myself but when looking at the answers I could see how the passages shown did embody the writers’ styles.

Finally here are some of my favourite remarks by Sayers on writing style (so glad I’m not the authors in question):

‘at the close of a stirring tale about inexplicable motor accidents, [he] introduces us to a horrid apparatus of torture and death. There was no need for him to inflict on us the additional torture of an exasperating style. He wallows in polysyllables, used either absurdly… or with a dreadful facetiousness.’

Brian Flynn – The Case of the Purple Calf

‘Bad English has not even the excuse of expediency. It is a criminal blunder, and its perpetrators should, and frequently do, commit financial suicide by hanging themselves in their own participles.’

‘What has the English language done to be served up in this dismal mess of rehashed phrases, like a resurrection pie?’

E. J. Pond – The Ince Murder Case

Thrillers

Sayers attitude to thrillers was something which interested me whilst reading the book. Surveying her reviews of such books you could simply regard her as scathing and biased The Riddle of the Travelling Skullagainst the subgenre. However, instead I think her criticisms were more an attempt to exhort the writers of this genre to put more effort into their writing style and to rise above the endless clichés. In her experience she found that when reading thrillers ‘99 times out of 100,’ they were written in ‘bad English, cliché, balderdash and boredom’ and in her reviews she does often give substantial quotes from the books to support her censure. Yet some writers who wrote more in the thriller vein did receive her praise, such as Ethel Lina White and Harry Stephen Keeler. She reviewed Keeler’s The Travelling Skull, which gave me a rather large headache, though she wrote it was ‘balderdash, if you like, but balderdash with a difference’. My favourite Image result for smash and grab clifton robbinscriticism though was of Clifton Robbins’ Smash and Grab where Sayers wrote that ‘with every ingredient that should make a story thrilling … it obstinately remains as stodgy as a tapioca pudding.’ Although I did feel a bit sorry for Mary Plum whose novel, The Broken Vase Mystery, Sayers reviewed, as Sayers simply said of it that it was ‘a thriller – lively enough.’ Sayers also used her reviewing of thrillers to look at the differences between that subgenre and the detective story, writing it ‘is mainly one of emphasis. Agitating events occur in both, but in the thriller our cry is “What comes next?” – in the detective story, “What came first?” The one we cannot guess; the other we can, if the author gives us a chance.’

Naming Your Mystery Novel

Last month I did a post on the weird and wonderful titles mystery authors have called their works, many of which Sayers may have come across and I would like to think appreciated for their originality. In contrast generic titles did not impress her and her comments on this contain her usual passion: ‘What in the name of Chaos and Old Night possessed Mr Vivian to call his humorous, well-written, well-characterised and altogether delightful and sensible story by such a slip-slop, sob stuff, rotten-ripe, rat-riddled title as Girl in the Dark?’ I also loved her idea that there should be a tax on titles which included the following: ‘The Murder at__’ ‘The __ Affair, Case or Crime’ ‘The Body, or Corpse, in the ___’ and ‘The Mystery of the ___’. Her reasoning behind it was that publishers formulated titles this way to ensure that readers knew the book was a mystery novel, which Sayers felt an insult to reader intelligence. With Sayers’ tax idea in mind I think if she was alive today any mystery novel title with the word girl in it would get added to the list.

Me vs. Sayers

One of the things I was looking forward to in reading this collection was seeing whether

Sayers liked or disliked the same books as me. At times our opinions converged such as with Anthony Rolls’ Scarweather, which she too found to have a quite simple plot. We both also enjoyed Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay and Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt and I particularly enjoyed the way Sayers’ described the humour of the latter: ‘the insensitive might even find it as funny as it appears on the surface, the sensitive will find it painful, but continuously interesting and exciting.’ Furthermore, we Image result for the murder of my aunt richard hullboth enjoyed the writing style of Elizabeth Gill, who Sayers said merged the detective story and thriller styles, though wrote ‘far better and with much more humour than the average thrill-merchant.’ I also liked her examination of Robin Forsythe as I think she pinned down eloquently the pros and cons I found in his work, as she comments in her review of The Ginger Cat Mystery, that he ‘writes like two men (perhaps he is).’ She backs this suggestion up by comparing the long winded monologues with the ‘brisk and amusing conversations between Vereker and Inspector Heather.’ I would have been interested to read her thoughts on The Spirit Murder Mystery, as this I felt was Forsythe’s strongest work. With typical Sayers aplomb she concludes her thoughts on the duality of Forsythe’s writing by saying that ‘both Forsythes suffer from an inability to punctuate.’

Image result for information received e r punshonHowever there were quite a lot of times that my opinions diverged from Sayers. For instance she loved the work of E. R. Punshon, writing that ‘all his books have that elusive something which makes them count as literature, so that we do not gulp them furiously down to get to the murderer lurking at the bottom, but roll them slowly and deliciously upon the tongue like old wine.’ I on the other hand found Punshon quite dull and long winded. She also loved the work of H. C. Bailey, R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts much more than I do, which in a way surprised, given their quite dry writing styles. In fact Sayers went as far as saying that Crofts ‘first made police routine fascinating and distilled romance from the pages of Bradshaw. He is our cunningest fitter of jigsaws, our Time-Table King and Master of the Alibi…’

Aspects of Mystery Writing and Crime Fiction Tropes

I think due to being a mystery author herself Sayers was able to examine structural and thematic aspects of the books she reviewed in a thoughtful way, often sympathising with the difficulties mystery authors had. For example in E. R. Punshon’s The Crossword Mystery she inclusively talks about at ‘what point must we release our vital clue so as to be fair to the reader without exploding the secret prematurely.’ Suffice to say Punshon didn’t quite get it right in this book – according to Sayers anyways. I think her desire for writers to be original, imaginative and creative with their work led her to honing in on overused tropes in her mystery novel reviews. Sometimes she did this tongue in cheek, thinking rich men should be banned from entering their own libraries for their own health and safety, (though women seemed to be fairly safe in this room in the house, as Christie’s The Body in the Library had yet to be written). At other times she is more openly critical such as with the trope of dying messages when in one review she writes that ‘it is dead. This week it has turned up again, and, like Mark Twain, I want a fresher corpse.’ I think she appreciated that people couldn’t revolutionise the genre in every novel, but if a familiar trope was to be used then Sayers felt it needed to be strongly executed. Equally she didn’t applaud every book which tried to be different, believing that ‘this ideal is seldom attained’ and in reality doesn’t always make for a good read. Her thoughts on the changing requirements of the short story between the first Holmes stories and the 1930s were also really good to read, suggesting that much of what we love about the Holmes stories would not have been included if they had been first written in the 1930s due to the much shorter word counts.

Sayers and the Bigger Names in Mystery Fiction

Although I loved finding out lots of obscure authors, I also enjoyed finding out what SayersImage result for shot at dawn john rhodes thought of more well-known authors, many of whom were fellow members of the Detection Club. Although yes she could be quite critical of her friends’ work, I think she could also be very endearing when she revealed how they bamboozled her. My favourite example is in her review of John Rhode’s Shot at Dawn, when she writes that Rhode:

‘is one of those kind thoughtful writers who patiently explain all the technical points of the narrative in words that a child could understand … That is why I am so indignant at the perfectly heartless manner in which he led my innocence up the garden path to be Shot At Dawn. Fair? Yes, of course it was perfectly fair: that is what makes it so galling. If I had had the gumption of a weevil in a biscuit, I should never allowed myself – But there!’

I also found it quite funny when she says in another Rhode review that she had ‘one personal quarrel’ with him, which was that ‘he does not love cats.’ Though interestingly she was less favourable with works from Rhodes’ other penname Miles Burton, as she found his amateur sleuth and Scotland Yard policeman duo a bit too predictable: ‘I think Inspector Arnold might have learned by now that his gifted amateur friend, Mr Merrion, is Always Right; it would speed his cases up enormously.’

Image result for death watch john dickson carrJohn Dickson Carr was another writer she reviewed a lot and the two of them did become friends. I think she admired the style and atmosphere of his writing, though wasn’t a major fan of the complex impossible crimes/ howdunnit approach. For instance when reviewing Death Watch she said that ‘his story may be too complicated, too improbable; his crimes may be performed by means and for motives too far-fetched for belief; but he has the art of the genuine frisson.’ However she enjoyed The Mad Hatter Mystery much more saying that ‘he can create atmosphere with an adjective, and make a picture from a wet iron railing, a dusty table, a gas-lamp blurred by the fog. He can alarm with an illusion or delight with a rollicking absurdity… every sentence gives a thrill of positive pleasure.’ But it is in her review of The Plague Court Murder that she hints at her disinclination towards locked room crimes:

‘Like all ‘sealed chamber’ mysteries, this one has a solution that takes a good deal of swallowing and demands a good deal of long winded explanation at the end: that is the drawback to all plots of this type…’

One thing that did surprise me was her enjoyment of Georgette Heyer’s work. However it seems that in Heyer’s characters and dialogue Sayers found ‘an abiding delight.’ For Sayers Image result for why didn't they ask evansgood writing could carry ‘a poor plot.’ Stuart Palmer, Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake and Margery Allingham also crop up in Sayers’ review lists. Of course all Christie fans will be wondering what Sayers said about her work and in comparison to writers such as Rhode and Carr, Sayers didn’t review her work as much. In reviewing Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Sayers asserted a preference for Frankie and Bobby, as bright young detectives, over Christie’s serial characters Tommy and Tuppence, who she found a ‘trifle sentimental and tiresome.’ The strength of Christie’s characterisation skills were praised in Sayers’ review of Three Act Tragedy, writing that ‘we believe in the reality of the people.’ Although in her review of Murder on the Orient Express, which avoids any discussion of its major novelty, she quibbles over Poirot’s deductions involving the pipe cleaner. Have to admit I was a little disappointed at the brevity of her discussion of this novel, but considering the criticisms G H D and Margaret Cole received for their work, I think Christie got off pretty lightly.

Anthony Gilbert is another writer Sayers reviewed a few times, a fact she actually Image result for an old lady dies anthony gilbertcommented on when Gilbert produced a third book within a year, writing that ‘there are many reasons which may prompt an author to produce books at this rate, ranging from hyper-activity of the thyroid to the grim menace of rates and taxes.’ I think Sayers was quite dubious of over production and in regards to the third book in question, An Old Lady Dies, she said it was up to the usual standard ‘but I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.’

Finally Anthony Berkeley, a writer Sayers knew quite well due to their involvement in the Detection Club also came under a Image result for panic party anthony berkeleyreview a couple of times, though sadly I think it was not his best work Sayers was reviewing. Jumping Jenny fairs best with Sayers commenting on Berkeley’s ‘energetic efforts to escape from the thraldom of formula,’ but with Panic Party Sayers writes that:

‘Sloppy sentiment is not wanted, on a desert island or anywhere else; but there is a point at which ruthless realism becomes not merely too unpleasant for popularity, but a little too bad for belief.’

For Sayers Berkeley disliked his own characters too much, though she did enjoy Sheringham’s fallibility.

Sayer Puns

Sayers definitely likes her puns in these reviews, often punning either the author’s name or the title of the book they wrote, such as with Nicholas Brady’s Week-end Murder, which Sayers said was ‘a murder with a weak end.’ Another favourite was with Anthony Weymouth’s Frozen to Death which Sayers did not particularly enjoy:

‘Perhaps I was in an unresponsive mood when I read it, but the book seemed to me to be rather stiff and dull, as though a malignant emanation from the title had got into the text and frozen it to death.’

Image result for frozen to death anthony weymouth

My final favourite pun was with Ronald Knox’ The Body in the Silo where Sayers wrote that ‘as usual, the follies of the modern world are shrewdly castigated – and, in fact, this book is full of hard Knox.’

Consequences

Apart from having a really good read I also came across a huge wealth of new authors, though sadly the most intriguing ones are impossible or hard to come by. Sayers has a knack for writing about a book in such a way that you want to know more about it, such as with E. Charles Vivian’s Girl After Dark, where the detective is supposed to get poetical on dustbins. Is it just me who wants to figure out how on earth you can be poetical about dustbins? Moreover, with a title by R Austin Freeman she enticingly says about the puzzle of the mystery that ‘you may be baffled by the platinum, but you will kick yourselves if you don’t guess right about the coffin screws!’ I am not a fan of Freeman’s work but there is part of me that now wants to know how these parts of the mystery connect.

On a slightly more serious note I think reading Sayers’ reviews made me reflect on my own role as a blogger reviewing crime fiction and the criteria I use to judge a book. Her reviews also made me wonder what Sayers would have made of modern mystery fiction, not just in the choice of titles, but also in the changing style and format and I kind of wish that she could write one or two reviews of such works in her inimitable style. Would thrillers today fare any better for instance? How good is the grammar of our modern writers, and do they get their facts right?

So yes this is a must read for all fans of golden age detective fiction. Get it for the laughs, get it to find out what Sayers thought of her friends’ work or get it to find some new authors to track down. But above all get it!

Rating: 5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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17 Responses to Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers (2017)

  1. Brad says:

    Omigosh, this looks wonderful! I think I would enjoy Sayers’ reviews more than the Wimsey stuff!!! I bought Curtis Evans’ biography of Todd Downing, which includes his newspaper reviews of mysteries, but I haven’t read them. I’m ordering this one now because I have nothing in my TBR pile. (LIES!!!!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers (2017) | picardykatt's Blog

  3. I wouldn’t have thought a collection of reviews could be all that engaging, but then I remembered how much I enjoy reading reviews… yep, that is interesting. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ says:

    Not being a fan of Sayers, I gotta say you’ve made this sound excellent — I shall track down a copy forthwith!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Dorothy L Sayers’ on Mystery Fiction Quiz | crossexaminingcrime

  6. This looks and sounds great. Those more acerbic criticisms are wonderfully sharp and hilarious. Wouldn’t of wanted to be in her line of fire, though I imagine that it would still be a fun read even if you were being criticised.

    How many Carr reviews are there?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Aubrey Hamilton says:

    What a great review! I want a copy and now must figure out how to get one here in the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! From what I have heard from others, your best bet might be trying to order it through a bookshop. Gardners and Bertrams have been suggested though not sure if they cover the USA. Sites such as Amazon are not as reliable as they don’t seem to stock many copies at a time and quickly go out of stock .

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  8. Fascinating, and you have completely sold me on it – like everyone else I am trying to order it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is a great book and it’s great everyone is so keen to get it, on here and in the Facebook GAD group. Just wish it was more easy for people to get a hold of it. But being a UK resident you should be fine getting it from Tippermuir directly.

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