All aboard for murder in Sebastian Japrisot’s The Sleeping-Car Murders (1962)

This is my latest foray into translated crime fiction, trying out an author new to me. The Sleeping-Car Murders (1962) was also adapted for film three years after it was published. Within a couple of pages we have our first corpse, that of divorcee Georgette Thomas, who is found strangled, oddly enough in a sleeping car of a train, which has just pulled into Paris. Corpses on trains was already a well-established trope in mystery fiction by this point, from Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), to Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands (1952), Miles Burton’s Death in a Tunnel (1936), M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin (1955) and Todd Downings’ Murder on Tour (1933). Though in fact I think Japrisot owes a debt to a completely different Christie novels. Hopefully those who have already read this book will know which Christie book I am referring to.

What I think makes Japrisot’s novel stand out though, is the fact that the train passengers are not separate compartments and the murdered woman is found within a compartment which held 5 other berths. It is assumed that her death took place soon after the train arrived in Paris and that one of the other five passengers did the deed. Though the police investigation, run by Grazzi also looks into the life of Georgette, given the number of lovers she had. However, once the names of the other passengers comes available the narrative switches its attention to them for a time and in fact our first impressions of the victim come from one of these passengers, Rene Cabourg. Japrisot adopts a narrative style which is reminiscent of stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse which means we quickly get into the minds of the characters, especially the other train passengers. Cabourg has conflicting emotions towards Georgette, having been attracted to her yet rebuffed. Amid a clear case of man flu he offers information to the police, yet conceals an argument he has from her. With such an unusual narrative style the reader soon begins to wonder how reliable our narrators are. I didn’t hugely take to Cabourg. Yet this is not a big issue for one good reason. Within pages of meeting him he too dies, a bullet to the neck and he is gone, an incident the reader knows about much earlier than the police.

Image result for the sleeping car murders

However, the police have more than enough to contend with, as other passengers they have tracked down also begin to die off, after being initially interviewed. Are they being silenced? There is also the issue of the mysterious passenger over which there seems to be much confusion. Was it a man or a woman? The passengers while they are still alive are often not very forthcoming with information. But we soon realise this is not due to criminal secrets but due to embarrassment, wanting to avoid revealing too much of themselves and their secret shames – a psychological component which strengthens the novel. As the bodies come thick and fast two of the remaining passengers attempt to solve the case themselves – an element which only emerges in the final third of the novel and in my opinion is the weakest element, as this part of the story does have some pacing issues.

I enjoyed how we received information via the suspects’ thoughts as well as via police interviews. The former often helped to maintain pace until the final third where suspect thoughts slowed things down. One of the surprises in the solution I saw coming, but another one definitely took me completely by the surprise. In some ways it felt quite realistic, but on the other hand I think the reader could have been more prepared for the motivations behind the crimes. My biggest niggle though is with the ending of the novel, which rather irked me, taking abruptness to a whole new level. However on a more positive I enjoyed the opening of the book a lot. We know to expect a body but Japrisot still manages to make it feel like a surprise, inserting a blunt line informing us of the body, immediately after a train employee’s reverie over his last stay in Nice.

The narrative style is definitely one of the things which makes this book striking. I have already commented on some of its features already, but in the beginning I noticed that in the opening pages of the story there was a negation of names. Characters are referred to by gender or job title. Something like this could easily become confusing, yet this is not the case here and instead gives a sense of anonymity to the characters involved, all the while still making them feel distinctive. In a way it was quite nice to not be immediately bombarded by a lot of character names in the opening chapter. I did also notice a negation of speech marks in the first part of the book. Not sure if this was an intentional part of the narrative style or not, as such punctuation does appear later in the book. The sense of time in this tale is also quite flexible when it comes to the passengers’ thoughts, as their thoughts often flow between past and present events. I think this worked quite well, though it certainly keeps you on your toes! So all in all I think this was a good read, entertaining and making a change from my usual GAD reads.

Rating: 4/5

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Dr Priestley Investigates (1930) by John Rhode

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Hangman’s Noose

Also known under its British title Pinehurst, Rhode’s novel has garnered quite a handful of positive reviews over time. Bookman likened the serial sleuth Dr Priestley to ‘Sherlock Holmes’, whilst Will Cuppy (whoever he is) thought this story was an ‘ingenious’ tale, as did the Saturday Review of Literature, who also said that ‘Dr Priestley’s ratiocinations are a joy to follow.’ Having now read the book in question, I am wondering if I was reading the same book. Suffice to say like the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog I did not hugely enjoy this book.

To be fair to Rhode the story does start out quite well. One rainy November evening, Thomas Awdrey is pulled in for drunken driving in Lenhaven. It is only on further examination of the vehicle that the police realise that the very drunk Awdrey has a passenger, who is decidedly extinct of life. A more thorough examination leads to the conclusion that Awdrey had run the man over and in his intoxicated state put him in the car to get help; a theory Awdrey demonstrably denies, when he’s sober and takes some convincing that he even had a dead man in his car. He firmly believes that he only had a stone bust in his car, which he was taking to a friend. It’s just a pity that it is no longer there and in fact is later found in the friend’s house. With such a shoddy explanation for events he is soon arrested for manslaughter.

Despite this being such a seemingly open and shut case, the police’s attention is drawn to the victim, Mr Coningsworth’s home, Pinehurst and its remaining residents. There is much to make a mystery reader suspicious, from the outlandish way the Coningsworths took over the home to Mr Coningsworth’s obsessive fear of being burgled. Though in this latter respect his fear might have been justified, as burglary does occur. But why would someone steal some brass door fittings? With such an odd set of circumstances it is lucky that this case is mentioned to Dr Priestley who immediately decides to get involved.

Yet unfortunately despite this intriguing initial setup the book failed to grab my interest. The murder method may have been bizarre and unusual, but it equally felt highly unnecessary. Furthermore, Dr Priestley is too much of a speculating sleuth for my liking. His theories seem to come out of nowhere, latching on to parts of the solution inexplicably. Though having said that I did figure out quite a few parts of the ultimate solution, including what I presume was its main surprise. Like the Puzzle Doctor I also didn’t appreciate the extensive backstory. It made the solution fit together in terms of motivations, but it was overly long, highly fantastical and it did feel like a lazy way of getting your solution to come together. Criminal blundering and confession are also other tools which appear a bit too much in this story. A slightly dry writing style I could have coped with, but even when writing about events which should have been dramatic and exciting, Rhode didn’t really engage my attention much. Characterisation was also a bit too minimal, considering the odd personalities involved. However I must say I was impressed by Awdrey’s ability to consume large amounts of alcohol in relatively short spaces of time, thinking nothing of drinking ‘three or four double whiskies, to keep the cold out’ in 15 minutes. The opening pages of this book could make for a very lethal drinking game.

Rating: 3/5

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Dorothy L Sayers’ Quiz Answers

Last Friday I posed an unusual quiz based around Sayers’ opinions on various writers and their works, not all of which were that complimentary. To have a go at the quiz click here. To find out the answers read on.

1. Thankfully Sayers was a fan of Christie’s sleuth Poirot (Answer: L), finding him to be of ‘bounding vitality’ and a ‘charmer’.

2. For ‘flesh creep[ing]’ prose Sayers recommended turning to the work of Carter Dickson (Answer: G).

3. It was poor Milward Kennedy’s novel, Poison in the Parish (Answer: A) which Sayers deemd to be ‘the primmest and quietist murder tale ever written.’ Though it seems she was often not very complimetary about his work.

4. Nor was Sayers a big fan of S. S. Van Dine’s serial sleuth, Philo Vance (Answer: F), hoping that some criminal would bump him off.

5. It was Ellery Queen’s writing style (Answer: D), which came under criticism by Sayers in this question.

6. Equally one does feel quite sorry for Henry Wade (Answer: E), as his Sayers was far from favourable about his ability to ‘depict sexual passion.’ This quote came from Sayers’ review of Mist on the Saltings (1933).

7. The Chinese Orange Mystery (Answer: K) had for Sayers a murderer who took ‘the absolute bun’ when it came to ‘perverted ingenuity’.

8. It was John Rhode (Answer: B) who Sayers thought would try out ingenuious murder methods on his dog.

9. Perry Mason (Answer: J) was the criminal laywer Sayers liked despite finding him ‘odd’.

10. The Blind Barber (Answer: H) was the book Sayers described as ‘gorgeous’.

11. In slightly more polite tones Sayers was also critical of R Austin Freeman’s (Answer: C) ability to depict romance in his stories.

12. Who knew books could be likened tocaviare? Well according to Sayers they can and it was King’s Obelists En Route (Answer: i) which gained this foody epitaph.


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With a Bare Bodkin (1946) by Cyril Hare

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Telephone

With a Bare Bodkin (1946) is a wartime set mystery, with Francis Pettigrew leaving his chambers to work as a legal advisor for Pin Control in Marsett Bay. Whilst at Marsett Bay, Pettigrew is staying at the Fernlea Residential Club, which is populated by many other Pin Control employees, one of whom called Wood, is revealed to be a mystery writer. To remedy the fact that only Pettigrew has read any of his work and to get around the issue of none of his books being easy to get a hold due to war time paper shortages, the merry widow, Mrs Hopkinson, suggests that he write a mystery novel based on them and set his murder at Pin Control. They soon decide on a victim, the head of Pin Control, but it gets more difficult to decide on who the killer should be. Eventually the elderly and dotty Honoria Danville is chosen, as Wood thinks her religious beliefs would create a good motivator for committing a murder. Of course being very adverse to this exercise in the first place means that no one tells her fictional designated role, a secret which also leads to division within the club.

The reader will not be surprised that real murder inevitably occurs. However, Hare does spend some time looking at the events prior to this moment of violence. We see various members of the Fernlea Residential Club working on their fictional murder plot, organising alibis and working out in exact detail how the murder should happen in their workplace. We see the formation of a relationship between Tom Phillip and Eleanor Brown, a relationship which Pettigrew is far from sanguine about, but what mystery lover would be when they hear that Brown is taking out life insurance at widowed Phillip’s instigation? An old friend of Pettigrew’s also arrives at Pin Control, Inspector Mallet, who is looking into the leaking of industrial and governmental secrets and is also trying to find evidence of unlawful trading. The murder when it does occur is surprising and leaves the field of suspects wide open. Did the victim know too much about the criminal activity Mallet was investigating? Or perhaps the fictional murder plot which many of the suspects were working on became a smoke screen for someone’s very real and murderous designs?

Overall Thoughts

This was definitely a much stronger read from Hare, than my last Pettigrew read, When the Wind Blows (1949). Granted you would still need to know some aspects of the law to fully solve the case, but I think most readers can probably roughly figure out who did it, even if they can’t fully explain the why. Well I say most readers, I mean this reader. For all I know everyone else’s knowledge of the law could be far superior to mine. But specialist knowledge is definitely something that crops up a lot in Hare’s work, where a legal point is at the centre of the crime, as in the novel, Tragedy at Law (1942) and An English Murder (1951).

Image result for with a bare bodkin cyril hare

Hare’s choice of setting in this book is one of its main strengths, as his involvement of the war makes for an interesting workplace mystery. The references to the war begin a little obliquely such as when the narrative talks about the loss of the buildings near Pettigrew’s chambers:

‘Two months previously one high explosive bomb and a handful of incendiaries had opened up the vista by removing the red brick wall and the two blocks of buildings beyond it.’

The war also means that the employees at Pin Control come from far and wide, which means that people have to accept the information people offer about themselves. As we see in this book it is not always the full truth. Furthermore it also interested me that one of the reasons why Danville disagrees with the group making up a murder plot is because ‘so many men and women are being sacrificed all over the world,’ as it did get me to thinking about the role of mystery novels during the war. With so much violence going on why would or should people read about more violence for pleasure? I think one of my immediate thoughts to this query was that in a world where violence cannot be easily controlled, a reassurance found in the mystery novel is that the murderer will be the caught, the violence will be avenged. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but in the main it does hold true for many books published at that time.

On the whole this was a good read. Hare weaves in his metafictional narrative strand well, with the murder plot created by the group generating gentle humour and also complicating the real murder. The characterisation is mostly strong and Hare is good at masking the real intentions of his characters. The only two qualms with the characters was firstly Miss Danville. She felt too much of a stereotypical mad religious spinster, which showed up more because of the other more well drawn characters. Secondly although Eleanor Brown is an interesting character, I think she was left a bit too mysterious. I guess this was because of events which happen later in the book. But the problem is that because we don’t really get inside her head the later events are a bit hard to fully believe and take on board. However Hare gives us a well-constructed mystery and his use of setting is refreshing, as although it is your commonly used closed set mystery, the more unusual workplace setting makes it feel more different.

There are a few elements thrown in at the end of the book, in an afterthought kind of a fashion, but I don’t think these have a detrimental effect on reader enjoyment. The length of the book is just about right for the plot size, as I think if Hare had written much more the pace would have begun to have suffered. I wouldn’t say this was my favourite Cyril Hare novel, that would Suicide Excepted (1939), but this was definitely an entertaining read and would not be a bad place to start if you are new to the author.

Rating: 4.25/5

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The Body on Page One (1951) by Delano Ames

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Any other piece of furniture

A reoccurring whinge of mine for the past year or so has been over how expensive it is to get a hold of this book. At last though I finally got in luck and managed to get a copy which didn’t feel like day light robbery or in fact require a robbery to pay for it. This copy also had its original dustjacket and it was interesting to see the different review snippets. John O’ London’s Weekly said the book had ‘plenty of lively and unusual characters, a satisfying mystery, and enough humour to cheer up even the wettest day of a holiday,’ whilst Punch succinctly said it was ‘really funny and really puzzling.’ A slightly longer quote from the Glasgow Herald categorises Ames’ work as ‘“thrillers” which are in a class by themselves’ and goes on to say that ‘in addition to a good mystery, always cleverly solved, [… Ames’ work has] wit, and the kind of humour that compels the reader to laugh out loud.’ Finally the Daily Telegraph reviewer said ‘I am very attached to Dagobert and Jane Brown’ – a sentiment I certainly endorse.

The Body on Page One (1951) begins with Jane and Dagobert Brown selling off their furniture in preparation for more living on the road and travelling. At Dagobert’s instigation the pair of them plot fictional murders for their neighbours who live in the other flats, in particular Jack Nicholson and his son, Apollinaire, who are not easy neighbours to get along with at times. Late night parties and incidences involving the fire brigade feed into this difficulty and now Jack seems to be entering their flat and damaging the furniture. Jane’s mind doesn’t stay on this bizarre behaviour for long as it seems Dagobert has been receiving love letters. He claims to not know who ‘Lilith’ is, but Jane is still less than impressed, given the less than glowing references made to her in these epistles. There is also the issue of the last tenant that Jane and Dagobert sublet their flat to, who has neither paid the bills nor returned the flat key. With all of these unusual circumstances bubbling beneath the surface, a leaving party is held for the Browns in the Nicholson flat, which is mostly attended by other flat owners, but also a couple of outsiders. Whilst little happened at the party itself much had been going on in the rest of the building, including murder and then what the police assumed was suicide. Ames carefully chooses his corpses and alibis are thin on the ground for the rest of the party guests. Although the police are satisfied by the case, the Browns gradually become convinced that the true solution has not been hit upon and wonder how the other odd circumstances prior to the deaths fit in. In a thriller like way I suppose they come across more and more evidence, as more and more becomes disclosed about the party guests and their relationships to each other. As the Browns had mostly been travelling the last few years their knowledge of their neighbours is slim to say the least and Ames hides a plethora of secrets behind respectable façades.

Overall Thoughts

The novel starts really well and shows the advantage of having a crime writer as a narrator, namely that the actual writer can work in a lot of metafictional humour, which is what happens here. Jane starts the story by writing: ‘I have always wanted to write one of those books with a body on the first page’ and it seems like her wish is granted when she arrives home. This moment of shock and terror, of finding Jack Nicholson sprawled on her sofa with a knife in his hand, is overturned and the tension dropped when we realise that he is only pretending to be dead. For such a joke we’re not surprised that Jane would happily plan Jack’s real death. Jane’s role as a writer of mysteries, mysteries based on cases she and her husband have been involved in, also helps the pair to look at the deaths in a more detached way, though this perspective is not held throughout. There is also an amusing moment at the leaving party when Jane is talking to another guest. She writes that, ‘I told him, and we chatted animatedly for several minutes about the creative writer’s place in modern society, handicapped only by the fact that he had decided I was Dorothy Sayers.’ A comparison made humorous by its sheer inappropriateness in terms of both authors’ writing styles, though it is fair to say that both are strong portrayers of characters.

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Whilst I wouldn’t say there is as much laugh out loud humour in this book as there has been in previous novels in the series, this story is still relatively light hearted, with a lot of the comedy resting on Jane and Dagobert’s relationship. At several points in the story both of them happen upon an important piece of information, though amusingly Jane arrives at these pieces much more easily, with characters confiding in her, whilst in comparison Dagobert works away secretly by himself, putting in a lot more effort and strain to achieve the same goal. I think this sort of outcome balances out Dagobert’s tendency to sleuth by himself. A mild spot of marital jealousy features in this story, fuelling some of the investigative work and surprisingly also creates a greater degree of psychological complexity in the book. It also more importantly, for us humour enthusiasts, gives Jane a prime opportunity for some dry humour. Another source of humour can be found in the child Appollinaire, who reminded me of Bertie from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, as Appolinaire is ‘alleged to be seven, though Dagobert had a theory that he was really a dwarf, and in his late sixties.’ A lot of Appolinaire’s humour comes from the way he appropriates more grown up words and tones, intermixed with the usual antics of a seven year old.

One thing which has always beguiled me with the Browns is their carefree and transitory lifestyle, which Jane refers to when she writes that ‘in principle Dagobert and I live in Flat C on the ground floor. In practice we live in suit cases and sub-let to men who disappear suddenly without paying the telephone bill.’ And for me this sort of lifestyle is not something we often see in other fictional sleuthing couple contemporary to them. However, I think Jane does reveal some misgivings about this lifestyle in the story, such as when she talks about them having to give up their cat, Grippeminaud:

‘We shall, I suppose, have to leave Grippeminaud behind us with the other household gods we are so ruthlessly disposing of. This is sad, but the kind of thing which happens to people who marry Dagobert…’

On Jane’s part at least there is a certain amount of sacrifice involved in going along with Dagobert’s schemes. Thankfully there are lots of things she also enjoys about travelling a lot.

Looking at the remaining characters I would certainly agree with the reviewer in John O’ London’s Weekly, as Ames does provide an excellent range of ‘lively’ and ‘unusual’ characters, who are psychologically complex and not all that they initially seem to be. Yet this complexity is not forced onto us or allowed to hold up the plot and I like how this complexity is revealed to us gradually, without lots of long passages involving their individual backstories. Furthermore, the secrets they hold are often surprising but also largely believable.

Although mostly a light hearted novel I think that this story has a darker and more emotive quality to it, especially nearer the end, where the pain of various characters is strongly palpable. Interestingly an editor Jane wanted to work for told her, her work needed to contain more love interest, yet in this story she suggests that the love interest does not need to be a romantic one and that intense feelings of love can be found from other sources, which was an idea that rather appealed to me. Again I think this adds to the more emotional revealing of the solution, though Ames being Ames does lighten the mood in the last couple of pages. Ames choice of criminal is a clever one, carefully hidden underneath the mad antics of the amateur sleuths and suspects. My only niggle with the book is that I think the solution could have been a bit more substantiated, though I guess this is more in keeping with the thriller slant to the book. It is not an out and out thriller by any stretch of the imagination, but the reactive approach the Browns often take to sleuthing gives it a thriller feel at times.

Thankfully Murder, Maestro, Please (1952), book number 6 in this series is not too hard to get a hold of so there won’t be any whinging by me on that front. That I will save for No Mourning for the Matador (1953), book number 7, which at the moment seems even harder to get a hold of than The Body on Page One.

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Rating: 4.25/5

See also:

Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950)

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The Golden Dress (1940) by Ione Montgomery

On a recent hunt for new and obscure writers I came across Ione Montgomery, who is bit of a mystery in herself. I wasn’t able to find out much about her online, apart from the fact that Montgomery wrote only two novels, this one and Death Won the Prize. However, with some assistance from the GAD Facebook group we have the theory that Montgomery could have been Ione Montgomery Lonergan, who wrote short mystery stories in a British serial in 1935. If this was the same person then Montgomery was also born in Missouri and in 1883 and died in 1972 in Seattle, a location which features heavily in Death Won the Prize. So if anyone knows anything else about our mystery author do let me know. I did manage to find one contemporary review from The Saturday Review, which has crime fiction reviews in a criminal record table. Their verdict on the mystery novel was: ‘tempestuous.’ They also wrote that ‘sins of the father – also those of offspring – get thorough airing in sultry, speedily moving and well plotted story.’


The book begins with Christopher Gibson feeling far from sanguine about reading a late client’s will. Judford Morgan in writing his will had tried to make it as unpleasant as possible for his family. No one would be surprised to learn that he frequently raged and was estranged from his children, Bob and Kay, the latter of whom used to be engaged to Gibson, but then eloped with her riding instructor, Derek Bonelli. When the will is finally read, although Morgan’s wife, Marcia, receives a very healthy trust fund, Kay only continues to receive her pittance of an allowance and Bob receives nothing more than a dollar, the family bible and the family name. Moreover, Doctor Holloway receives a healthy pile of cash and so does Lily Gomez, who not only gets a substantial allowance but also the family home. Why you ask? Well it seems as though she was Morgan’s illegitimate daughter and she is keen to get all she can from the will and in the most unpleasant way possible. Although she does have to reside in the family home at least 6 months each year, otherwise everything goes to Bob. The will also puts additional strain on Morgan’s children, either hindering their ability to get married, (Bob is engaged to Gail Dallam), or crumbling their existing marriage, as with no substantial reward from the will, Derek immediately loses interest in Kay and openly begins looking around elsewhere. Unsurprisingly emotions are running high as Marcia has to get ready to leave her home, whilst Kay is far from impressed at Derek’s shenanigans with Lily, even going as far as taking a gun out on them.

Image result for the golden dress ione montgomery

Therefore no reader is shocked when Gibson and his secretary Miss Hull, (otherwise known as Scraps), find Lily murdered in her bedroom one evening, stabbed with a dagger. Gibson and Scraps are the sort of sleuths who are more of headache than a help to the police, happily withholding evidence which they think may incriminate their friends. In particular a piece of gold lame dress is removed, fearing that it may belong to Kay. Although there are plenty of suspects within the Morgan family, Lily’s ex-husband has also made an appearance and it soon transpires that the dagger was his. Of course whilst Gibson and Scraps try to protect their friends, they also put their own lives in jeopardy, either by using themselves as bait or by the fact that someone increasingly seems to be incriminating Gibson.

Overall Thoughts

On balance I think this was a middle of the road sort of mystery. The case did have a number of well thought out clues, but because they were hidden under a mountain of family drama and amateur sleuth stupidity, they did not really appear until near the end and consequently the cleverness of the mystery got rushed out at the end. It would have been better if the curious aspects of the case were emphasised earlier on, so the reader could start pondering and thinking about them sooner. Out of Gibson and Scraps, I much preferred Scraps, due to her intelligence and assertiveness. Of course due to being a plump older woman she does end up being the butt of jokes at times and only avoids objectification due to the unfair assumption that no one could fancy her. When we are first introduced to her Gibson says she is ‘a fixture I inherited with the business.’ Thankfully though she can hold her own in any exchange with Gibson or the police and you do get the feeling that she is the one who wears the trousers in her working relationship with Gibson.

Image result for the golden dress ione montgomery

Although this book had a lot of familiar tropes Montgomery does weave in some slightly more unusual narrative strands, though unfortunately they are not used as much as they could have been. The killer themselves felt a bit too trope filled, though I think the more melodramatic revelation of the solution had something to do with that. I also had a few qualms about the denouement of the book which tries to tag on a romantic ending on the story, which I didn’t think fitted with the character psychology. So it could have been worse but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get Montgomery’s second book.

Rating: 3.75/5

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Dorothy L Sayers’ on Mystery Fiction Quiz

Yesterday I posted a review of The Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers (2017), which I absolutely loved, so much so, that I decided to do a quiz around Sayers’ often quite amusing and biting opinions on her fellow mystery authors and their characters. All you have to do is match the answers in the orange hand box to the correct question in the blue hand box. Answers will go up next week. Enjoy!



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

Source: Tippermuir Books Limited (Review Copy)


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


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.’


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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Book of the Month: February 2017

Unlike last month, February didn’t give me as much time for reading and nor did it give me as many good reads, in fact quite a few of them were ‘meh’ reads (very technical term I know). Though to look at it more positively I have tried out a few new authors and given a few others another try and perhaps come to the conclusion that they might just not be for me. Carrying on from last month I am still participating in Bev’s Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge (click here for further details), which she runs at her brilliant blog My Reader’s Block and this month’s reads have added 10 more titles to my chain, giving me a total of 29.

cold-bloodAt the start of the month I began with James Hilton’s Was it Murder? (1931), a less well-known school based mystery where a death which looks accidental was actually a murder. This surprisingly led me to John Stephen Strange’s Look Your Last (1943), which looks at cover up crimes from a big oil company who was transacting business with Germany. One of these crimes, like in Hilton’s novel, is a murder made to look like an accident. This book wasn’t the best of reads, but it did lead me to reading Leo Bruce’s Cold Blood (1952) as in both books there is a policeman investigating the case, who is aided by an amateur sleuth who works in journalism. Cold Blood was a brilliant read, making it a strong contender for the Book of the Month title.

My next read was M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin (1955), which connects to my previous Death in Berlinread by the fact they were both published in the 1950s. Despite a brilliant initial setup and choice of setting, post-war Berlin, the actual mystery itself was rather disappointing. One of the victims is stabbed in this novel, which lead me to reading Victor Whitechurch’s Crime at Diana’s Pool (1926), where someone else gets stabbed to death. Again despite a promising start the mystery became quite dull and relied too much on a backstory the reader had no access to and the writing style was fairly dry. A country murder seems quite disparate from the legal battles of Perry Mason, but Gardner’s The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939) was my next read, as both authors gave one of their sleuths a career within the same sector they themselves worked in. Gardner’s novel was another meh read of the month, as I just don’t think the American legal milieu works for me particularly well.

the-suspicion-at-sanditonFollowing on from this book I read Anthony Rolls’ Scarweather (1934), another book published in the 1930s. Although Rolls is a good writer the simplicity of the mystery did let the story down, despite the unusual archaeological milieu. However, favourable reports on Family Matters (1933), another Rolls’ mystery, has meant he is an author I will try again soon. Like this novel my next read, Juanita Sheridan’s The Waikiki Widow (1953) had a Watson type narrator. Though other than that they are very different reads. The Waikiki Widow was a brilliant finish to Sheridan’s Lily Wu series, making me wish she had written a few more of these stories. From 1950s Hawaii to early 19th century Surrey, my next read was Carrie Bebris’ The Suspicion at Sanditon (2015), which was the final novel in Bebris’ Mr and Mrs Darcy mystery series. Like Sheridan’s novel, Bebris’ book has a very shifty and suspicious looking widow who is at the heart of the mystery. Bebris’ series is a great continuation of Austen’s work as she deftly recreates the settings and characters of Austen’s novels and the mystery in The Suspicions at Sanditon was well paced and intriguing.

This led to my final read of the month, Elizabeth Daly’s Evidence of Things Seen (1943), as both books have a Jane Austen link, with the former book including some of Austen’s characters, whilst in review, Daly’s writing style and handling of characters has been likened to Jane Austen’s. Not sure I can quite see it myself as this was another meh read, though I think this was less to do with the writing style and more the way the investigation was structured.

So my three contenders for Book of the Month were Cold Blood, The Waikiki Widow and The Suspicion at Sanditon. It was quite tricky trying to decide which one to pick but I eventually chose Sheridan’s novel as I loved the post-war Hawaiian setting of The Waikiki Widow and Lily Wu and Janice Cameron are brilliant and engaging amateur sleuths to follow.






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Tuesday Night Bloggers: Sayers and Love

tnb-loveOver 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.

Image result for the deductions of colonel gore

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?

Image result for busman's honeymoon

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.

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