Dorothy Leigh Sayers is undoubtedly one of the most influential and enduring writers to emerge from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — as a founding member of the Detection Club and the creator of one of last century’s best known amateur sleuths she was in at the blood of the formulation of GAD and has remained hugely popular ever since.
But, man, do I ever struggle with her writing. Her novel writing, anyway, which seems to me long on bombast and short on the sort of gamesmanship GAD should evince. However, through her writing in the likes of collaborations ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930), ‘The Scoop’ (1931), and Six Against the Yard (1936), and short stories like ‘The Haunted Policeman’ (1939) I’m finding quite a lot to enjoy in her use of language and the effortless affectation of mood she conjures from time to time. With that in mind, I purchased the above anthology of her complete short fiction in the hope that I may find more to appreciate in her work if I take her in small doses, and the Montague Egg stories she dabbled with for a few years seem a good place to start (Wimsey is too…Wimsey for me at present).
The Montague Egg stories appear to’ve been written for the weekly UK publication The Passing Show, and were latterly collected in two Sayers anthologies: Hangman’s Holiday (1933) and In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939). The existence of such a publication, and one frequented by such a luminary of the era no less, seems crazy in these times, but I suppose we should remember that newspapers used to carry detective shorts — see the Leo Bruce collection Murder in Miniature (1991), or even in The Mystery of the Locked Room (1905) by Tom Gallon. Man, times were good once, eh? Not like now, with our lightning-fast wifi and near-zero incidents of steamship diseases.
Right, let’s get to it.
“Where…did the others go?”
‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’, a.k.a. ‘The Poisoned Port’ (1933) introduces us to Montague Egg, “travelling representative of Plummet & Rose, Wines and Spirits, Piccadilly”. This first case, which I’ve read before but did not remember, sees Egg calling in on his usual rounds on regular customer Lord Borrodale who, most unfortunately, appears to have been poisoned the night before by a bottle of the eponymous vintage that Egg sold him a few months previously. It’s relatively straightforward in establishing how the bottle, decanter, glass, and strainer are all out of consideration when it comes to administering the fatal nicotine, and the eventual reveal of the poisoning is canny if a little unlikely. Most enjoyably of all, however, is how Sayers lets the personality of Egg shine through — his pleasure at learning the decanter was swilled round with a drop of brandy before the port was poured into it, or the slight professional pain at learning that Borrodale was in the habit of “drinking his port straight off. He did not sip it” — and the sly observation by which he identifies the guilty party early on all work towards a subtle portrait of a very deliberate character. A lovely introduction, not least because so few people use the word “expectorate” these days.
‘Sleuths on the Scent’ (1933) finds Egg holed up by bad weather at the Pig and Pewter inn at Mugbury, and further put out by a bad dinner and a “commercial room” that is not up to standard. In the public bar, however, he gets into conversation with various other people — a courting couple, the monosyllabic Mr. Faggott, and fellow commercial traveller Mr. Redwood among them — before a radio announcement regarding a wanted murder suspect turns conversation to how the description could fit almost anyone in that room…and some of them seem to know more about the crime than is in the papers. This has about it the ring of one of Edmund Crispin’s short stories from Beware of the Trains (1953) in how a small, seemingly innocuous detail lays the whole thing bare, with the slight problem that the detail is nowhere near as ingeniously innocuous as Crispin could make them. Indeed, I’m still not entirely sure how to perform that…action, and it stands out so starkly because of how poorly described it is. Allow yourself to swallow the necessary coincidences here, which will be no problem for the seasoned GAD reader, and it still won’t quite play on account of this confusion.
Monty confronts a dead body in ‘Murder in the Morning (1933)’ — poor Mr. Pinchbeck found “stretched out on his own kitchen floor, with his head battered to a pulp”. Having “served two years on the Western Front”, Egg is not as shocked as he might be and has the presence of mind to note the time, cover the body, and alert the authorities. A viable suspect soon emerges — raised voices were heard, there’s talk of money troubles — and all seems on course for a swift conviction when a witness crops up at the last minute and provides a watertight alibi. How this plays out is a little minor, but it’s pleasing to note that the fundamentals of rigour should be fully observed before jumping to any conclusions (Joseph French would be delighted…). I learned something that I assumed was an esoteric piece of historical note but in fact still holds true to this day, and the lighter tone of this mini-detection makes for an enjoyable enough distraction. Not entirely clear on the motive of the murder, if I’m honest, nor quite if the, er, scheme deployed plays into a deliberate plan or is just the result of happenstance, but in a weird sort of way not having that cleared up makes me like it all a little more.
We veer even closer to Crofts territory next, with ‘One Too Many (1933)’ reading like Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) in miniature as business magnate Simon Grant vanishes on a train between Birmingham and London and, by dint of being on that very train, Monty is interviewed by Inspector Peacock in the course of his investigations. This provides our first, albeit glancingly, physical description of our man — “fair haired, well-mannered” — and again gives Monty himself a little room for personality to shine through in his own classification of the people who shared his third-class coach. There’s a Croftian impersonation stunt at the heart of this, and the various schemes of trains overlapping and missing each other by the narrowest margins feels like the sort of thing he’s often accused of writing to the exclusion of all other plots, and it’s all take in a good spirit and with a minimum of shock, fuss, or bother. What someone of Sayers’ erudition is doing writing a sentence as ham-handed as “[he] had gone out his way to give a fictitious and, indeed, non-existent address” is another matter. To find a lady of letters indulging in so beastly a pleonasm is more of a shock than the eventual solution.
We get the first real duff of the lot in ‘Murder at Pentecost’ (1933), which sees Sayers comfortably on home turf with a murder among the dons in the eponymous (fictitious, non-exsistent) Oxford college. Again there are faint shades of Crispin, this time in the serial-confessor Mr. Temple who is swift to assure the police of his guilt regarding any murder he hears of, but the academic setting is largely immaterial and, besides Monty’s involvement through an opening clarification on a point of linguistic manners, there’s little in the structure or the solution to commend it. Of far more interest is that the Bodleian’s Phi collection is, it turns out, a real thing: the shelf-mark Φ given to obscene books in a move
…designed to protect young minds from material that was considered immoral while also protecting the books themselves from unwanted attention or damage.
There’s a lost opportunity here, I feel, to have some fun with the possibilities offered by obscene literature, the notion of a don writing several works “disproving the existence of Providence”, and the whole academic setup in general. Sayers would surely know her way around all of this blindfolded, but what we get could have been tapped out by the pimpliest undergrad in around ten minutes. A shame.
Shades of ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘The Seven Black Cats’ (1934) by Ellery Queen abound in ‘Maher-shalal-hashbaz’ (1933): the definitely-legit Mr. John Doe advertises in the paper offering 10 shillings — apparently some £27/$34 in today’s money — for a cat, any cat, and people are unsurprisingly queuing round the block in the hope of selling theirs. Having rescued young Jean Maitland’s Maher-shalal-hashbaz (“But he answers to Mash, don’t you darling?”) from a tree, and struck by the oddness of the setup, Monty tags along, helps her sell the cat, and is then intrigued when a week later Mash has made his way back home and the Does have vanished. This is a well-written tale, if not especially a surprising one, and Sayers has a vice-like grip on the dread atmosphere when relating the experience one character would likely have gone through as a result of all this cat-buying. There are surely easier ways to achieve this end, but it’s a decent tale with an interesting ideas at its core, and I learned of the “Edgware-Morden Tube” that runs through London — more commonly known today as the Northern Line, which name I discover was not bestowed upon it until 1937.
‘A Shot at Goal’ (1935) brings us the second duff of this series, with a torn fragment of a letter found in the hands of a dead man that would seem to implicate one person but, quelle surprise, there’s a second interpretation of the legible words. But the presence of the letter makes no sense, and it should in no way bring about the actions it does to complete the plot. Also, Sayers has this habit of introducing characters by giving them dialogue before we’ve even been told they’re in the scene, and here — with the various nods and winks and local knowledge about who’s who and all the backstory that has to fit in — it’s more alienating than ever before. From the perspective of history, it’s amusing to think what someone in the 1930s who viewed football (soccer, that is, for the Ausmericans among you) as being corrupted by “too much commercialism. and enough back-biting to stock an old maid’s tea-party” would make of the professional game now, but beside that there’s little on offer here. The structure is frustrating, the language uninteresting, and the reversal in no way convincing. If I read this without knowing it was by Sayers, her name would be a long way down the list of my guesses for its provenance.
Another disreputable hotel for commercial travellers, another murder, another duff story: ‘Dirt Cheap’ (1936) would appear to be the final hurrah for Egg, but I guess it’s not put last here because it would be a dull goodbye. The murder of a fellow salesman, and the theft of his jewellery samples, is rendered in the sort of who-was-where-when detail that I’ve always found Sayers to be especially poor at, and after the crisp and superb opening it descends into a slightly farcical round of lumpy alibis and casually-dismissed evidence. The occasional turn of phrase delights — such as a victim “who had stuffed himself up that evening with dubious mackerel and underdone pork, to the admiration of all beholders” — but whether it’s the confines of space that are restricting Sayers or whether she’s simply not firing on the full allotment of cylinders (these were, after all, one surmises, somewhat minor diversions as stories) it’s difficult not to wonder at what Agatha would have done with the same setup. And the use of auditory clues doesn’t help, especially the coincidence required to make them work and the fact that some of the parlance has now passed out of knowledge. Not a success, and if it is indeed the final Egg story, well, it’s hard not to feel like his time was well and truly up.
Another customer found dead after drinking the wares of Plummet & Rose sees Monty on the case in ‘Bitter Almonds’ (1934). Elderly Mr. Whipley argues with his son Raymond, threatens to change his will so that Raymond’s cousin Cedric inherits, is found poisoned in his study the following morning. The eponymous odour permeates the scene, Raymond’s interest in photography brings him into contact with potassium cyanide…oh, dear. There’s a clarity to this one that reminds me of the first, good half of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), and the confrontations, suspicions, and implicit accusations amidst the small group is so much tidier than in the previous story (which dealt in the same sort of arrangement). There’s nothing especially notable about Sayers’ use of language here, and you feel that she just got a really good idea — the central ploy feels like something Carr would have loved — and had a lovely time simply writing a decent little plot to fit around it. Were Sayers able to do this more often — to divest herself of the slightly arch pomposity I feel hiding behind the wallpaper in her writing and just play the game — I’d like her a whole lot more. The final paragraph feels like someone trying to fulfil a requested word count, however, and it would be a better ending without it.
‘False Weight’ (1934) gives credence to the idea of stories as documents of their time, because the principle around which it revolves could be brilliant or could be alarmingly simplistic — the knowledge required to judge is now too far from public awareness. Another disreputable hotel (this is such a recurring theme in these stories that I’d almost believe Sayers through she was writing these stories for the Socialist Worker to bring attention to the Plight of the Common Man), another murder, the obvious perpetrator having paid his bill and left in the night, the body found in the morning in the lounge where “every piece of furniture…seemed to have suffered violence”. What appears to be a clue in the disappearance of the deceased’s sample-case — “he travels in lingerie” is an idiom that’s clearly not aged well — peters out to nothing, but then there’s that possibly smart piece of work which might provide an alibi if viewed in the wrong way and might hang a man if viewed correctly. So it’s hard to judge. It would be churlish to hold against a story from 85 years ago that it failed to update itself as ignorance progressed, but at the same time I have no choice but to accept what I’m told and be done with it. Vexing.
Finally, ‘The Professor’s Manuscript’ (1934), which has no crime to speak of but might just be the smartest of the lot. Regaled by a fellow salesman of his encounter with an elderly professor who had no interest in the soft drinks being peddled, Monty is encouraged to think that perhaps a stronger tipple might turn the old man’s head and so goes along to try his luck. He meets Professor Pindar — “the hairiest person Mr. Egg had ever set eyes upon” — in his study, surrounded by his “fifty million tons of books”, sells him some port, and then immediately goes about trying to find the source of his suspicion that something is not quite right. What’s so clever about this is that we’re told from the off that Monty finds something unusual about the professor even before meeting him, but we’re never made privy to the precise reason for this suspicion. And then come the end you’re put in the picture with glorious, head-slapping brilliance, the sort of experience that makes you immediately wish to hand in your papers as an armchair detective for how magnificently you overlooked the key points. Coincidence abounds, but the whole thing is glorious fun and it’s a lovely one to finish on.
And so, what of Montague Egg? The best of these — ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’, ‘Maher-shalal-hashbaz’, ‘Bitter Almonds’, ‘The Professor’s Manuscript’ — show, as befits Sayers’ reputation, a wonderful invention and insight on the genre, and a real acuity with how to mislead. Put elements of fair play aside, as the precise knowledge is esoteric now and difficult to judge from all these years back, and it’s just lovely to think that Sayers may have actually enjoyed dashing these out for some light, quick reading. Glitches crop up in her awkward descriptions of actions at times, and a few of these don’t really commend the genre or the author to anyone, but there’s a breezy lightness, and an occasional love of linguistic brevity and absurdity, that’s pleasing to see given how much I have to chew her novels before I can even think about swallowing the prose there. Whatever happens with Sayers and I in future, I’m delighted to think that the footling on show here was something she made time for, as it’s lovely to see the Great Lady unbend to play along with we mere mortals. Consider my interest in her work not desperate for resuscitation just yet, and also thank your lucky stars that I got through this whole review without cracking a single egg pun…
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: A comic amateur sleuth seen only in short stories is never going to be shown in such developed detail as Lord Peter Wimsey, who alongside being in short stories, also features in 11 novels. Such characters consequently have different purposes and I think Montague Egg is designed to be a slightly less than real humorous character who can’t see quite how ridiculous he is. On the whole I think she is good at placing the mysteries within plausible surroundings for Montague Egg to appear, though I think readers’ may be stretched to credit the scenario of the last story. In short I probably wouldn’t recommend these short stories to Sayer novices as I don’t think such readers will see what Sayers is fully capable of from them.