Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The collected crime reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Martin Edwards, Tippermuir Books Ltd, 19/02/2017.
A book review by Jonas Rohe, Queen’s University Belfast
Taking Detective Stories Seriously is a collection of the reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), covering mainly the period in which she was a professional reviewer for the Sunday Times from 1933 to 1935. Sayers is not only famous for her successful crime fiction novels, but was also respected and revered for her work as a translator of Dante, her writing on various religious subjects, but was also, as this volume shows, an excellent critic and anthologist of the detective genre at the height of the Golden Age.
The volume is edited by Martin Edwards, who also provides a lengthy commentary on Sayers’ reviews. He details Sayers critique of several well-known crime fiction authors like John Dickson Carr, H.C. Bailey and other notables of the Golden Age. Edwards also casts light on Sayers’ view of the crime fiction genre in general, and her ideas of what a good detective story should be like. Overall, he paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful as well as passionate woman whose intelligence and articulacy command respect, even when her strong opinions provoke disagreement.
Indeed, Sayers was very articulate about the kind of writing she was expecting from her peers, and one point that she mentions quite frequently is the necessity for what she sees as “good English” in writing. She points out flaws in style or grammar relentlessly in her reviews and even issued a resolution in 1935 in her own inimitable style: “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”. Through her reviews, she also regularly reveals a particular dislike for unimaginative titles (like “The Murder at …” or the “The Mystery of …”). There, she anticipates Chandler’s satire of them in the introduction to The Simple Art of Murder („… nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue“). When a title displeases her one can be sure to find a witty retort or pun that casts shame on the perpetrator for their banal or uninspired story titles, e.g.: “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?”
Sayers had her own idea about “good writing” in crime fiction stories, and from many reviews one can read that she was frequently disappointed in lax characterisations, plot holes or “unfair” solutions for detective stories, which were impossible for the reader to figure out for themselves. Not only was the “fair play” imperative a critical part of crime writing for Sayers, but also the combination of style and good characters, which were necessary for crime fiction to be something that she would have consider good literature: “Plot is not everything; style is not everything; only by combining them can we get a detective story that is also good literature.”
She expresses her distaste for rushed writing and overproduction, which many writers of the genre fell victim to. Although she herself was often under pressure to earn money through her literary works, she always criticised over-productivity as dulling the originality of the works in question. She reviews, among others, the third Anthony Gilbert book within a year, An Old Lady Dies, where she stated that, although the text was up to his usual standards, “… I do not feel that there was any strong and compelling reason for writing it.” She criticised not only the writers but also the audience which was, in her eyes, too accepting of lacklustre writing:
“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. The greatest genius is usually attended by a considerable fertility, but, as a rule, it is too much to expect a fresh masterpiece every four months. With the detective story the temptation to over-production is especially dangerous: first, because it is only too easy to shake up the old pieces of the kaleidoscope into what looks something like a new plot, and, secondly, because the public (and this means You!) is still to indulgent in hasty and mechanical writings where mysteries are concerned”
With the growing interest in classic crime stories today, Sayers´ reviews offer the reader a detailed inside look not only into the various titles of the Golden Age, but also into the crime fiction genre as a whole. Sayers part witty, part cynical and part serious appreciative reviews are a well-written and entertaining way to get a new perspective on classics of the genre as well as an inside view into the personality of one of the key figures of crime fiction writing in the 1930s. Her inimitable style and quick wit as well as her evident expertise and care make this collection a good addition for fans of the Golden Age of Crime and anyone who enjoys the art of the well-written review, of which this one is such a shining example.