Friday, November 15, 2013

"It is Quite Possible to Disentangle the Story from the Talk"

By Dorothy L. Sayers.
Harcourt, Brace & Co.
1936. $2.50
Martin Edwards reacts to Dorothy Sayers's novel: 
. . . I remain to be convinced that 'Gaudy Night' is a masterpiece of detective fiction (a view that a number of good judges hold). Along with 'Five Red Herrings' and 'Busman's Honeymoon,' it ranks as the type of Sayers "mystery" that simply doesn't excite my interest because the good stuff is buried with too much long-winded material that isn't necessary for the story.
Nick Fuller's review is on the GADetection Wiki.
When I first read 'Gaudy Night' at the age of thirteen, I found it extremely dull and pompous, stuffed with pretentious conversation and without a murder . . . Eight years later, older, wiser and intellectually more mature, I am able to recognise it for what it is: very long, very talky, and very, very good.
Mike Grost on the GAD Wiki:
Many people today link Dorothy L. Sayers with Agatha Christie. However, aside from the fact that they were both British women who published mystery stories during the 1920's and 1930's, their works could not possibly have less in common . . . Another common take on Sayers is that she raised detective fiction to the status of literature. This point of view is especially common in academic studies on Sayers. These writers tend to depict Sayers as the only writer of merit, in a field of detective fiction otherwise consisting of nothing but subliterary junk. Critics of Hammett and Chandler tend to make similar claims for their authors, portraying them as lonely little petunias in the onion patch of detective fiction. There is some truth to this idea, however misguided in its dismissal of detective fiction as a whole.
From THE SATURDAY REVIEW (February 22, 1936, by Edith Hamilton), archived here. Excerpts:
Quotations in many languages for every occasion are the stock in trade at Shrewsbury. The prospective reader of 'Gaudy Night' is herewith advised to get up his Bartlett.
. . . there is a mystery deftly tucked in between the long and leisurely and discursive conversations and meditations which make up two-thirds of the volume. It turns not upon a murder, but upon the activities of a poltergeist armed with a poison pen which just fall short of murder. Quite a good mystery results, and yet this reviewer, a devotee of detective stories, was never tempted to skip the talk and hurry on to the solution, so wisely and so entertainingly do the learned ladies and gentlemen discourse.
Was Lord Peter so impeccably adequate in the earlier stories? But of course he was. It is the presupposition to every detective tale that the super-detective cannot be really baffled. To conceive of Dr. Thorndyke or Inspector French as ever hopelessly up against it, would be to destroy the foundation of our delight in them. We must feel secure in their power to meet every situation.
As for the heroine, she is a wish-fulfilment, what every scholastic woman wants to be.
To the impatient reader who wants his mystery straight, it may be said that it is quite possible to disentangle the story from the talk and that although he will find Lord Peter playing a dual role, lover as well as detective, the love story is a good rival to the search for the criminal.
From SCRUTINY (December 1937, by Q. D. Leavis), archived here. Excerpts:
This odd conviction that she [Sayers] is in a different class from Edgar Wallace or Ethel M. Dell apparently depends on four factors in these novels [of hers]. They have an appearance of literariness; they profess to treat profound emotions and to be concerned with values; they generally or incidentally affect to deal in large issues and general problems (e.g. 'Gaudy Night' in so far as it is anything but a bundle of best-selling old clothes is supposed to answer the question whether academic life produces abnormality in women); and they appear to give an inside view of some modes of life that share the appeal of the unknown for many readers, particularly the life of the older universities.
. . . Miss Sayers' fiction, when it isn't mere detective-story of an unimpressive kind, is exactly that: stale, second-hand, hollow. Her wit consists in literary references.
I think indeed that the real draw of 'Gaudy Night' was its offering the general public a peepshow of the senior university world, especially of the women's college which has been less worked at by novelists than undergraduate life and has the appeal of novelty.
What does seem indisputable is that Miss Sayers as a writer has been a vast success in the senior academic world everywhere. The young report that their elders recommend 'Gaudy Night' to them. Miss Sayers has the entree to literary societies which would never have opened their doors to Edgar Wallace, she is canonized as a stylist by English lecturers already, and so on; after all her reputation as a literary figure must have been made in such quarters.
Leavis didn't think much of Dorothy Sayers's fiction.
 The UNZ index lists 69 items for Dorothy L. Sayers.

Category: Detective fiction

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