Dorothy L. Sayers and Clever Murders

Dorothy L. Sayers, with her famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is best known for writing literary detective novels, while Agatha Christie is known for writing clever detective novels. Until we come to Gaudy Night, however, Dorothy L. Sayers writing more literary than clever novels was not really for lack of trying. As she said in her chapter of Titles To Fame:

When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the forst “lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose Body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree…

Whose Body? was conventional not merely in the form of its dialog and the actions of its hero—the best example that comes to mind is that Lord Peter took measurements and examined all manner of things carefully with a magnifying glass. Whose Body? was also conventional in that the mystery had, at its heart, a clever twist. As I alluded to before, she would keep this up for most of the Lord Peter novels until she got to Gaudy Night. The thing I find curious is that, unlike Agatha Christie, the twists mostly wouldn’t have worked. (If it’s not obvious, spoilers will follow.)

Whose Body? Is the main exception to the twists not actually working, because I think it would have worked. A surgeon with access to cadavers for dissection could probably have made the switch and done the relevant dissection work well enough to get the head to look like it fit on the wrong body.

In Unnatural Death, the murder weapon—injecting air into the veins—would not be much of a problem at all unless the syringe was comically large. One estimate I saw was that it would need to be the size of a bicycle pump. Since the victim was drugged at the time of the injection, this is not an entirely insurmountable problem as the murderer had time to pump air in with many strokes, but that would be exceedingly difficult to do without making the injection site obvious, which it needed to not be.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club put the twist in the domain of human relations rather than in the method of murder itself, which meant that the murder would have worked. That said, I am dubious that forensic science in 1928 could measure the amount of digitalis in a person’s blood post-mortem, especially since according to Wikipedia digitalis was first isolated in 1930.

Strong Poison relied on the murderer being able to develop a tolerance to lethal doses of arsenic and thus to give himself a lethal dose at the same time as his victim, by poisoning a shared meal. While this was believed to be possible in the 1920s and 1930s, it turns out to not be possible at all. (The evidence that had been used at the time was the “arsenic eaters” who would eat large lumps of arsenic. It turns out that the thing that saved them was not tolerance but rather the lack of bio-availability of arsenic eaten in lump form. While they were consuming large doses of arsenic, they were also excreting virtually all of it in their solid waste. This does not apply to arsenic dissolved into liquid and put in an omelette, which would have been as fatal to them as to anyone else.)

The Five Red Herrings has as its twist the forging of a railway ticket which, in some strange way, provided an alibi. This one might work out, for all I know; it depends upon the details of the working of the Scottish railway system in 1929 or 1930, which is a thing I doubt is knowable with certainty in the year of our Lord 2023. I couldn’t stand anything about this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about the twist ending making the unbearable time-tables pointless. That said, “he forged the railway ticket” isn’t really a clever twist. Anyone could do it. It’s just in the category of “This obvious thing was surprising because I thought it was against the rules.”

Have His Carcase is a brilliant book and quite possibly my third favorite Lord Peter novel (after Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.) The twists and turns are done extremely well, with evidence of suicide and evidence of murder alternating masterfully. The solution of hemophilia is both not-obvious and well-laid. The problem, though, is that I don’t think that blood behaves the way that it was described in the book. Granted, I’ve never slashed a healthy man’s throat on a hot rock in the sun but I’ve butchered deer and not cleaned up until the next day and the blood looked liquid enough. Even if human blood behaves differently, the timing doesn’t work out. Harriet took about twenty minutes to take pictures and collect things from the body such as a shoe. It was stated that for the blood to be in the condition described the man could have been killed ten minutes before at the outside. Thus either Harriet should have noticed the blood clotting as expected before she left twenty minutes after finding the body, or else blood doesn’t actually clot that way, or else Harriet mistook what clotted blood looked like, or else something was wrong with the blood. Whichever alternative you prefer, the characters should really have known that the timing was not as tight as they thought. That said, it was great to watch the characters deal with the problem of contradictory evidence and persevere.

Murder Must Advertise doesn’t really have a twist, so it’s an exception to the rule. It does have a massive drug-gang and action which is almost more in the realm of the spy-thriller than the detective story, which I suspect take the place of the twist. That said, using a slingshot to hit someone in the head with a stone scarab in order to knock them unconscious so they die by falling down the stairs is… an uncertain way to commit murder. It could certainly work—blows to the head can be surprisingly fatal. That said, if I wanted to commit murder, hitting a moving target in the head with an irregularly shaped rock using someone else’s slingshot would not be high on my list of methods. It would be too easy to miss the vital few square inches and then there would be a lot of explaining to do.

The Nine Tailors is, perhaps, my second-least favorite of the Lord Peter stories, so I’m probably not the best person to do it justice. That said, the twist in it was that the death was accidental, not intentional. The victim had been left tied-up in a belltower and couldn’t be retreived before an hours-long bellringing event and the loud noise killed him. The problem is that a bell, even close by, isn’t nearly loud enough to kill. To rupture the eardrums, maybe. To cause long-term hearing loss, sure. But to kill with sound requires sound energy approximately on par with explosions—or being way too close to a jet engine. (Sounds with this enormous amount of energy cause air embolisms in the lungs; it does not kill through the ears.)

Then we come to Gaudy Night, which had no twist at all, and I think was also the greatest of the Lord Peter novels. It’s not perfect, but it is a masterpiece.

In fairness, I should mention that Busman’s Honeymoon did have a twist, or at least a very clever trap used to commit the murder. While it would have worked to kill the victim, I am a bit dubious that it could have been set up quite as described without the victim noticing, despite his age and it being dark. This is a minor quibble, though, since the basic premise was sound, and it would not have been too hard to have made the trap less obtrusive.

I don’t really know what to make of all of this, other than the clever mystery seems to have been been very much in the water during the golden age, so much so that even writers who set out to not write them still ended up including elements of them. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the clever mystery, either—Agatha Christie did them brilliantly. To some degree I’m just “thinking out loud” as I find it curious that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote them even though it was not really her thing.

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