The 1920s and ’30s endured a brief vogue for railway-timetable mysteries. Entire book groups might be rendered comatose by a detective’s detailed explanation of how the killer could leave from Lemon Farthing on the 11:07 to Treacle Super Mare, disembark at the understaffed station in Little Denture, and, without buying a platform ticket, sneak into a carriage on a branch line, arriving at Kidney Upon Snout in time to be seen having afternoon tea at the Four Leeks.
A Dorothy L. Sayers fan site lamely excused her novel Five Red Herrings on the grounds that she merely wanted to prove that she could write one. Or, perhaps, that she could type one
What, I would soon wonder, did that ellipsis omit? The Veg-O-Matic of plots? The Sam’s Club of intrigue? For I encountered a series of elementary, not to say amateurish, blunders one would hardly have expected from “one of the greatest mystery story writers of [the 20th] century” (Los Angeles Times). Let us enumerate a few.
Body count zero. You read that right: zip. I concede that Miss Sayers was not writing for an era in which every schoolgirl would be up to date on blood spatters and body farms and a serious detective would find it infra dig to waste time on a perp whose list of victims hadn’t yet reached double digits. Plots were not obliged to plunge their detectives into a shadowy world where, caught in a vortex between absolute truth and absolute power, they would face a brilliant madman who played for keeps, when everything and everyone is not who or what they appeared to be.
On the other hand . . . Miss Sayers’s homeland had just toughed out the Great War. It surely had the stomach for a villain more menacing than a serial letter-writer — even one whose messages were made more ominous by being perfectly spelled (a detail calling forth much ratiocination).
The lone attempt at murder fails the laugh test. Its intended victim is Harriet Vane, quasi-girlfriend of the gentleman detective Lord Peter Bredon Death Wimsey. She is the story’s mainspring, a regular Sacagawea whose clue-gathering is interrupted only by Wimsey’s periodic proposals of marriage. (There is, however, no free lunch. See Inner life, below.) Wimsey does introduce a certain frisson by giving her a dog collar, an industrial-caliber accessory unlikely to be available at PetSmart. The reader perks up in anticipation of some racy divertissement (perhaps a parenthèse or even a méandre). But the collar is meant as a defense against strangulation, recalling a similar bit of unintended comedy from The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney version): Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, orders the men he’s leading through the Paris sewers to keep one arm permanently upraised in a kind of right-turn signal in order to foil any assailant attempting to garrote them with the fiendish Punjab Lasso. But I am méandring. Sayers cranks her dial as far as it goes, somewhere between 2 and 3: her villain escalates from nasty notes to crockery breaking, then finally goes for Harriet’s throat — but is foiled by the collar.
Detectives have motives — revenge, justice, snobbery, anger, boredom, lust — not complexes. They define themselves in action.
Inner life: Some writers, not all of them women, believe that detectives need inner lives. That is a rookie mistake, even if committed by someone who “has long stood out in a class by herself” (Anonymous). It is the literary equivalent of pulling out the driver with a two-stroke lead on the 18th tee, of making the third out at third base, of trying a drop shot from ten feet behind the baseline. It is not a percentage play.
Detectives have motives — revenge, justice, snobbery, anger, boredom, lust — not complexes. They define themselves in action. Survive the ambush, slap on the mask, stockpile the silver ammo, and the Lone Ranger is good to go, needing just a few bullet points of general guidance: do justice; use good grammar; shoot bad guys in the hand to make them drop their guns.
But Harriet and Wimsey agonize at tiresome length over his proposals, her rejections, the obligations of a gentleman, the place of women in society, etc., etc., etc., taking up valuable space that could be devoted to mayhem and corpses.
Repartee and badinage: While a writer of detective fiction is not obliged to put the bad in badinage, she should not make the reader dread its appearance. How the heart sinks when Lord Peter (“No crust has ever been more upper, no sleuth more of a hoot” — Los Angeles Times) does a bit of preparatory monocle-polishing as he readies a mélange of literary allusion, poetic quotation, and Latin tags, peppered with schoolboy slang and upper-class g-dropping, all embalmed in a supposed “brilliance.” (“I have a cursed hankering after certain musty old values, which I’m coward enough to deny, like my namesake in the Gospels. I never go home if I can help it . . . the cocks crow too long and too loudly.”) As my mother used to say, don’t you just want to give him a swat?
Enough. The prosecution rests. Is Dorothy L. Sayers, as some would have it, truly the Ginsu Knife of the whodunit, the Thighmaster of the policier, the Newark of Golden Age crime fiction? These questions, I believe, answer themselves.
— David Guaspari is a writer and lapsed mathematician in Ithaca, N.Y. His non-technical works have appeared in Commentary, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and literary journals, and in theaters throughout the country.