Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Sayers’

The Lord Peter group at Yahoo wonders if Pagford, the small town in J. K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy,  is a reference to the Pagford in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon.

I  don’t have a copy of Rowling’s book obviously, because the official publication date isn’t till tomorrow, but Pagford rings a bell, because I recently reread Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon.

Sayers (1893 -1957), one of the first female graduates of Somerville College at Oxford, a scholar, a linguist, a translator of Dante, a playwright, an essayist, a poet, and a theologian, was the author of 11 Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Her brilliant sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an oenophile and Oxford graduate who sports a monocle, has infinite charm and money, and tricks information out of people by acting silly.

When is a genre book not a genre book?  When it is a Dorothy Sayers mystery that also seriously attempts to explore the complex nuances of relationships between men and women:  affection and indifference, camaraderie and courtship, love and loathing, and the structures of new and old marriages.

Busman’s Honeymoon is the strongest of the four Peter Wimsey novels featuring Harriet Vane, the mystery writer he fell in love with when she was accused of poisoning her lover (Strong Poison).  He courted her through Have His Carcase (Harriet finds a dead body on a hiking vacation) and Gaudy Night (Harriet investigates poison pen letters at Oxford), but didn’t succeed until Harriet saw other women at Oxford falling for him.

Corpses have always come between Peter and Harriet.  She was understandably reluctant to marry an amateur detective.  So what is Sayers saying when, in Busman’s Honeymoon, the couple stumbles upon yet another corpse?  Bunter, the valet, finds the body in the cellar of the country house which Peter has bought for their honeymoon to please Harriet, who grew up in the area.   Is Sayers trying to say their sex life not as fabulous as Harriet implies?  That death separates them?  (Isn’t “Death” one of Wimsey’s many names?)

Sayers’s dazzling prose, fascinating characters, and humor combine to make a rambunctiously entertaining novel.  Her love scenes fail, but I admire the witty repartee.

And the form is innovative.

The first 20 pages, the “Prothalamion,” is an epistolary experiment that reveals in bits and pieces in the form of documents,  letters,, and  journal entries the fact of Peter and Harriet’s marriage.  Peter has very much annoyed his sister-in-law by pretending he would be married on one date in Hanover Square , and then dodging over to Oxford to get married on another date to fool the reporters.  His mother, though, is very much pleased.

Then the novel becomes a traditional 3rd-person narrative, but it is still more than a whodunit.

Who killed Mr. Noakes?  Was it Miss Twitterton, his niece?  Mrs. Ruddle, the housekeeper?  Crutchley, the gardener?

We do end up caring, as Sayers brings these urban and country characters to life.

FAVORITE BOOK REVIEW/PROMOTION PUBLICATIONS. In light of Sir Peter Stothard’s tentatively bipolar (and I usually LIKE bipolar) fulminations against book bloggers, I have decided to mention some of my favorite, slightly less traditional book publications.  Call it solidarity, call it occupy, call it what you will.

First, my entire blogroll.

Second, BookPage.  BookPage is a free monthly book review magazine–actually a book promotion publication–you can pick up at the public library.  Although the reviews are never very critical, BookPage highlights new books by genre, and it is the one of the best quick guides to what’s out there.  I even like the ads.

Third, Blogging for a Good Book.  This excellent blog from the Williamsburg Library in Virginia publishes five well-written reviews a week by various staff members.  The reviews are very interesting, and cover all genres.

Please add your favorite book publications in the comments.  I have come across some great ones over the years, but don’t always remember to bookmark them.

WHAT I GOT IN THE MAIL  I cannot buy any more books for the rest of the year if I want to buy Christmas presents.

And please, publicists, don’t mistake this for a plea for new books.  I am trying to live a simple life-style here.

But  two interesting books came in the mail this week, which I scouted and ordered from my favorite bookstore, Amazon.

William McPherson’s Testing the Current.  I had to buy a second used copy after my old copy fell apart a few weeks ago.  I am fascinated by this novel about an eight-year-old boy’s view of his upper-class family and neighbors on the verge of World War II.  Summers on the island are bucolic, Christmas in his midwestern hometown is magical, but McPherson is never sentimental, and we are aware of darkness in the margins of the child’s life.  There is also an excellent description of a chemical plant:  if you’ve ever visited a big factory like this, you’ll be awed.  This is a classic.  NYBR is reissuing it in November.

Diana Tutton’s Guard Your DaughtersStuck-in-a-Book recommended this novel and compared it to I Capture the Castle.  Heavens, that’s one of my favorite books.  I just wrote about it the other day.

I can’t wait to read this!

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Don’t get me wrong:  I love Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries.

Ngaio Marsh

But having finished Gaudy Night (too much Harriet Vane and too little Peter Wimsey for my taste), I am turning to Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), another Golden Age Detective novelist. Born in New Zealand, she wrote 32 novels about her series hero, Scotland Yard detective chief-inspector Roderick Alleyn.  Like Sayers’s Peter Wimsey, Alleyn is a gentleman and Oxford graduate. Like Wimsey,  Alleyn also falls in love with a woman suspected of murder.  And both Harriet Vane in Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930) and Gaudy Night (1936) and Agatha Troy in Marsh’s Artists in Crime (1938) (and subsequent novels) are originally uninterested in detective boyfriends.

The romance between Sayers’s  brooding Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey is fey and unsexy, though.  Harriet seems slightly lesbianish in the presence of Peter,  though she does come to the life in the presence of younger men at Oxford.

Marsh’s Alleyn and Agatha are definitely heterosexual, and sometimes a girl just wants to put her feet up and fall in love with a passionate detective hero.  OK, it’s not quite a romance, but I do like Alleyn.

Book Scouts.  Are book scouts with scanners ruining public library book sales?  People are rushing around sales, checking the value of books on their scanners, and buying books cheaply so they can resell them on the internet.  This can be a problem for readers who want to buy and read books.

Some public libraries are banning scanners from sales.

Booker Prize Shortlist Bestsellers.  The BBC says 37,500 copies of the books on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist have sold since September 6, more than double the previous record set in 2009.

Sales and literature don’t always go together, though.

The Voices of Bloggers.  We all have our favorite bloggers, and I would like to call your attention to the intelligent, reflective voice of Ellen Moody at Under the Sign of Sylvia.

Ellen, a well-known English professor, writer, blogger, and leader of various Yahoo groups, has recently written about changing names.

“FWIW, when I divorced my first husband, my lawyer told me that in reality you can call yourself whatever name you want. For some purposes you need to notify authorities: where, for example, cash payments (social security), or some benefit or attachment to an institution is in question.  Since we were talking about divorce, my question was, Did I have to go back to my birth name or could I keep my first husband’s name? He said it was my choice. I decided to stay with my first husband’s name because my original name yes had very bad vibes for me. I didn’t want to be the person that I had been under my first name and birth name.”

I find this subject fascinating, because it is a sensitive issue for women.  I kept my own name, because I had always had it, though I preferred my husband’s name.

By the way, Anna Kavan, one of my favorite writers, who originally wrote under her married name, Helen Ferguson, renamed herself Anna Kavan after a character in one of her books.

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It is often easier to peruse a contemporary novel than to read a classic.  In books with contemporary settings, the language and landscape are familiar, and the characters may remind you of yourself, your friends, or your enemies.  A classic, on the other hand, must be complex enough to survive for several generations, often with allusions to ancient literature, historical events, and political movements no longer prevalent in the culture. Although good books are often overlooked, few of us argue that a classic is a classic.  A classic bowls us over.

Except, perhaps, in the case of mysteries.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Many mystery lovers I know read only new books and assure me that P. D. James, Lee Childs, and James Lee Burke are classics.  (And they may well be right, for all I know of contemporary mysteries.)  But for the last decade, I have been steeped in Golden Age Detective Classics of the 1920s & ’30s, due to the recommendations of a friend, an organic-gardening meditating Luddite who has perfect taste in books and is certainly not afraid to rank mysteries as classics.   I have especially enjoyed the Four Original Queens of Crime, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh.  Of these four, only Sayers was familiar to me 10 years ago.

Once you’ve discovered Golden Age Detective Stories, you are likely to spend a year reading little else, at least at bedtime.  I especially find Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey series satisfying, and read these over and over, as does the Dorothy Sayers group at Yahoo.  Sayers (1893 -1957), an intellectual and one of the first female graduates of Somerville College at Oxford, was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams.  She wrote 11 Peter Wimsey books and translated Dante.

My favorite Sayers book is The Nine Tailors, a mystery about bell-ringing,a valuable necklace, and murder.  But I have most recently reread Gaudy Night, a novel set at Oxford. Harriet Vane, a mystery writer beloved of Peter Wimsey, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, to help solve a poison pen letter case that is destroying trust at the college and may endanger its reputation.  (N.B. Some in 1936 when the book was published still believed women didn’t belong at Oxford.)

This is rather a long book, and you have to like to read about college life to enjoy it, because there are many details about academic women, research, losing gowns, getting Firsts, and punting on the river.  Throughout it, Harriet Vane agonizingly considers whether or not to marry Peter Wimsey, and honestly I don’t think she loves him, but that is my opinion.  Peter Wimsey himself doesn’t come into the novel until late, and that is disappointing because he is funny, smart, and livens things up.   The women at the college know they are often considered “unbalanced” because of their spinster status, and are very worried that something may turn up in this case to confirm this prejudice.

I very much enjoyed it, but prefer the Peter Wimsey books.  Harriet is an interesting character, but Peter is more complex, in a dapper, monocled, clever way.  He joyfully manages to make people underestimate him so he can solve crime.

A fabulous series–I can’t recommend it enough.

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If I were a painter, I’d be out with my easel. Though I’m enchanted by the pale autumn blue sky, I admit fall is not my favorite season and I’m inclined to think art would improve it.  Yes, I would enjoy being an artist in a Golden Age Detective Novel, preferably Miss Selby or Miss Cochran in Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings, or the beautiful Agatha Troy in Ngaio Marsh’s Artists in Crime. Too bad the art gene was left out of my makeup–I read art crime novels instead.

Tonight I’ll be reading another Golden Age Detective novel, Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost.  Albert Campion, gentleman sleuth, is one of my favorite detectives.  According to the cover description, he is present when a young artist is  murdered at a dinner-cum-art-show celebrating work of the late painter John Lafcadio.

This should be an enjoyable evening’s reading.

I’ve spent most of the day reading one of the Booker Prize-longlisted novels,  Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side. The Booker shortlist will be announced in two days, and I hope this makes it.

Barry has been shortlisted twice for the Booker, in 2008 for The Secret Scripture (which I loved) and in 2005 for A Long, Long Way.  Perhaps his new masterly novel will win. It is not only lyrical but entertaining, a page-turner that should appeal both to admirers of beautiful prose and fans of unputdownable stories.

Lilly Bere, the 89-year-old narrator, an Irish immigrant in the U.S., is mourning her grandson Bill’s suicide.  Young and vivacious, he returned from the Gulf War devastated.  Lilly is contemplating suicide as she thinks of what happened.

“The war took the last sparkle out of him.  He returned from the burning desert like a man that has seen one of the devil’s miracles.  Some mere weeks later he was out with his friends, maybe doing a little of that drinking he liked.  Next day he was found by a cleaner lady in the toilets of his old high school, of all places.  He had climbed in there on some impulse known only to himself.  He had killed himself on a Saturday night, for the reason I am sure that only the janitor would discover him on Sunday, and not the great tide of children on Monday.  He had hanged himself on his tie from the door hook.”

She looks back over her life, which has been suffused with grief and violence.  Murder, suicide, and premature death have been a constant theme.  Her brother Willie died in World War I,  and she observed that “after three years of war (he) had been hollowed out by horror and extinction”–very much like her grandson’s reaction to war.  Later she falls in love with her brother’s friend, Tadg, a WWI veteran who becomes an Irish constable.  Both Lilly and Tagh are targeted by the IRA for a seemingly trivial incident, and Lilly’s father, a retired chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, helps them escape to the U.S..  Tadg is tracked down and killed in Chicago; Lilly flees to Cleveland, where a black friend, Cassie, a cook for a couple in Shaker Heights, finds her a job there as servant.

The setting of much of the novel is the Midwest.  Unusual for an Irish novel, no?  And I must admit I’m grateful, because as a Midwesterner I notice the paucity of midwestern scenes even in American novels.

Barry’s characters visit the Institute of Art in Chicago, which I know very well.  In Cleveland, Barry describes the dust of steel mills baked into characters’ skin, a day at Luna Park, an amusement park, and Shaker Heights, shorthand for enormous wealth.

Lilly ends up on Long Island, but I’m not there yet.

I’m savoring this novel, and I really hope it wins.  This is the kind of fiction that the Booker highlights for those of us who might not otherwise find out about it.

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Mysteries were never exactly my thing.  I was bored as a girl by whodunits though I had friends who read them by the sack. We used to frequent a used bookstore, really a kind of low-ceilinged shack  on the highway, where we could trade paperbacks or buy them for 25 cents.  My dad would drive us there and we’d come home with sacks of Gothic novels and popular novels like Up the Down Staircase, The Chosen, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and A Death in the Family.  

I was very picky about mysteries until I discovered Dorothy Sayers. We all watched Masterpiece Theater and as soon as I saw my first Peter Wimsey mystery–no idea which one–I became mad about them and read one after another. The Five Red Herrings, Sayers’ seventh mystery (1931), is my favorite, probably because of the art angle.   I love the observations of missing tubes of paint, the timed painting competitions to determine how long it would have taken to fake a painting by the victim, and the frenetic study of train time-tables and stolen bicycles.  Campbell, the murder victim, had infuriated all the other artists in Galloway, a village where “one either fishes or paints.” The eccentric Lord Peter Wimsey, who had witnessed Campbell in a bar fight the night before, investigates the six painter suspects and, with his usual debonair, silly percipience, manages to solve the mystery.

Sayers is really the best of the Golden Age writers and changed my mind about mysteries.  I’d love to read Sayers exclusively for a while but have to read others on my list, too.

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