#530: Serving Up a, uhm, Verger’s, er, Breakfast – The Montague Egg Stories of Dorothy L. Sayers (1933-36)

Complete Sayers

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.

3 Chows

“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.

Hangman's Holidays 1

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.

In the Teeth of the Evidences

‘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.

Hangman's Holidays 2

‘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.

In the Teeth of the Evidences 2

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…

~

See also

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.

38 thoughts on “#530: Serving Up a, uhm, Verger’s, er, Breakfast – The Montague Egg Stories of Dorothy L. Sayers (1933-36)

  1. I share your difficulty with Sayers: I read I think all of the Wimsey novels back in the day, but did so against my inclination, so to speak. (I think I was influenced by Harold Wilson telling me The Nine Tailors was his favorite novel. Gosh, was I young.) I revisited her first Wimsey novel a year or two ago and thought it was an unadulterated stinker; to be fair, when I reread Margery Allingham’s first Campion novel a while later I thought it was pretty bad too. The difference is that I’m quite keen to read more Allingham, because I can remember how much better she got, whereas with Sayers, er, not so much.

    I like your three doggies, as depicted.

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  2. Thanks for the mention. Impressed with your willingness to keep giving Sayers a go. It would be interesting to see what you make of HHC. I really need to re-read more Sayers, as I read all of her work pre-blog days. Have you ever tried The Documents in the Case of Five Red Herrings?

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    • I find Sayers hard to dismiss largely on account of how superb her writing is in the likes of The Scoop — surrounded by her peers, who are by no means a bunch of hacks and amateurs, the clarity and brevity of her written description really stands out. But as soon as she allows herself 90,000 words…man does that clarity and brevity ever go out the window!

      “The Documents in the Case of Five Red Herrings” sounds like the title of a Sayers pastiche, though to answer your intended question I’ve not read the former and gave up about a third into the latter — it was, in fact, the last Sayers novel I tried after Bellona Club, Whose Body, Nine Tailors, and, er, something else.

      I’ll try some of the Wimseys in this collection and then launch an assault on HHC later this year, perhaps. Fingers crossed…

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      • Whoops! Yeah that should have been an or not an of!
        FRH is not one of my favourites, but I thought the alibi focus might have been your thing. TDITC didn’t feature Wimsey so I thought it might appeal because of that.
        I think Harriet Vane has a very good influence on Wimsey’s personality, so I have my fingers and toes crossed that HHC will work for you.

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  3. Man, you’re stealing my thunder here. I feel more or less exactly the way you do. I know I should re-read the Sayers novels, but I have a mental blockage that prevents me from doing so (I have the same blockage with Michael Innes, I’m sad to say), so I had the bright idea this week that her short stories might be a way for me to judge her writing. And then write about them on my blog, of course.

    And then… You do just exactly the same. :/

    One interesting(?) thing about Sayers is that she might be the only major GA mystery writer who’s been almost completely translated into Swedish, where the Swedish publishers used the exact same short story collections as the British counterparts. The only missing translations are the three tales that were not collected until several decades after Sayers had ended her mystery writing career, in Striding Folly.

    I can’t recall any other major writer that has been translated as completely as that. Crispin comes close – all his novels have been translated, but none of his two short story collections. Christie also has all her novels translated (perhaps more of a feat, that…), but there are several short story collections that are exclusive to the Swedish market and only a few that are direct counterparts of the British ones. And several of her short tales have only been translated by a certain hobby translator. With Ngaio Marsh two novels are missing in Swedish.

    Carr, Allingham, Crofts and Queen (and the aforementioned Innes) are less well-translated, there are a number of novels that haven’t been translated and only Crofts has a short story collection translated at all.

    (Doyle’s Holmes stories, of course, have been completely translated into Swedish.)

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    • I, too, fail to see the pleasure of reading Michael Innes. Sayers I shall persevere with, Ellery Queen I’ll continue to chip away at, Nicholas Blake I feel I owe maybe another two or three books, but Innes…nah, I’m done. Can’t even quantify it, I just won’t pick up anything by him ever again, have already wasted too much time. So at least we’re in sympathy there.

      And me stealing your Sayers idea seems just reward for you stealing my “I must read These Daisies Told by Arthur Porges” idea in the last week or so. What goes around comes around, dude…

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  4. Dislike of Sayers’s work seems to be a common attitude in these circles, which surprises me a bit. I mean, I know her attitude and style can be off-putting (any conversation is all the better if seasoned with untagged literary quotations, no translation is needed for foreign languages, etc.), but I would have thought her place in GAD was secure. I did eventually find that knowing more about her life cast a more favorable light on her style: she was as messed-up and unable to overcome her personal hangups as any of us, and wrote (in part at least) the world she wished existed, like many another author.

    The mention of “The Red-Headed League” reminds me that some of her most engaging writing was in the realm of Sherlockian explication. She wrote a wonderful article about that very story, taking seemingly irreconcilable dates and situations, and making perfect sense of them. And her explanation of why Mrs. Watson could have called her husband James, when we know his name to be John, is so brilliant and simple that I wouldn’t be surprised if it has almost become canon. There are many sides to her writing, in fact.

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    • Huh, that Sherlockiana sounds quite interesting — where can I find it?

      She strikes me as an author who had a wonderfully analytical brain, which is part of why she was able to fit so neatly into collaborative works and develop other people’s ideas in interesting ways that stopped them getting to convention-bounds too quickly. Where it seems to come apart for me is that rejection of the conventions of GAD becomes a sort of snobbery when she’d going out of her way to write in the genre in a way that feels very superior where the genre is concerned: genre is convention to an extent, and if you don’t like it, just don’t write it. Cool, push what you see as the limitations of the form, but do so honestly and cleanly, without making a point of how much better your take on something you’re not actually writing is.

      Maybe that’s why I can only take her in small doses. I wasn’t aware there was a common consensus of dislike for her work; I was pretty sure I was on the fringes, as with most of my opinions 🙂 Don’t know how I feel about being so mainstream…

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        • “The Dates in ‘The Red-Headed League'” appears just a bit further on, beginning on p. 168. There are two other bits of Sherlockiana in there too (about Holmes’s university career and Watson’s widowhood).

          I greatly enjoy much of her nonfictional writing, in fact. The “Divine Comedy” translation is obviously only for those interested in Dante, but I am one of those. And her annotations remain unparalleled, I think. Her explication of the doctrines of Purgatory and confession are the clearest I know (I speak as a nonbeliever ex-Protestant). Her essays — derived from public presentations — on other aspects of Dante I also find absorbing, as I do her feminist articles, and her analyses of such literary matters as allegory and translation.

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          • If you’re talking translations of Dante, I’ve always found Mark Musa to be far more readable than Sayers — got ’em all, and have read them countless times. But that’s perhaps a conversation for another time and place 🙂

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            • Maybe so. But I didn’t mention her Dante on grounds of being readable — often enough it isn’t, at all (though that becomes if not forgivable, more understandable, after reading her descriptions of the stricter limits she set herself: that the theology had to be completely accurate and use the correct terminology, which I’d venture most translators don’t care about, and so on). Basically a Divine Comedy in English can’t simultaneously achieve high accuracy, terza rima, and literary quality. One chooses what to sacrifice.

              Where she shines is the annotations, whether she’s explicating matters historical, geographical, astronomical, mythological, theological, or stylistic. Whatever translation I read, I would keep her volumes at hand for the “apparatus.”

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    • I think that this dislike is understandable even if you don’t share it. There is a fair bit of class-prejudice and racism in the Wimsey stories, which is a lot to ask someone to overlook. And fans of the pure detective novel are always going to be disappointed. Except perhaps in “The Five Red Herrings”, she was never content to attempt to write a plain murder mystery with a closed circle of suspects and some well-disguised clues. She was always trying to make the detective story into something bigger, into a study of character or landscape or a part of society. But this means that if what you want is a pure detective story then you are going to be disappointed — the whodunnit aspect in Sayers is often absent or perfunctory.

      When her approach worked, as I think it did in “The Nine Tailors” and “Gaudy Night”, the two halves of the story complement and enhance each other. But when her reach exceeded her grasp, as for example in the “bright young things” sections of “Murder Must Advertise”, it falls flat. You can see what she’s going for — the advertising industry as a metaphor for drug-pushing — but Sayers knew a lot about the former and nothing about the latter and this stands out badly.

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      • “I think that this dislike is understandable even if you don’t share it. There is a fair bit of class-prejudice and racism in the Wimsey stories, which is a lot to ask someone to overlook.” Sure, no argument there. Such elements are present in other such books from that time and place, of course, but somehow they stick out more when she does it — maybe because we seem to be asked to be complicit. Your other points are interesting, but I don’t think I altogether agree: “Strong Poison” seems a classic impossible crime with hidden motive and means (it’s also one of the shorter ones, which may be related); and “Have His Carcase” seems to be all about the whodunit. I agree about “Murder Must Advertise,” and you may even rank “The Nine Tailors” higher than I would (though I do enjoy it).

        It may come down in the end to “am I enjoying this writer’s company enough?” On the whole (discounting those moments when she puts me right off) I do with Sayers. I do with Tey too, even though the element of fair-play detection is often enough absent altogether.

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        • Undoubtedly the class-prejudice and racism are present in other books from this era, and certainly for me that’s not what turns me off with Sayers. Gareth’s point about the reach and intent of the books is far closer to my perspective — Nine Tailors being a great example, which you’re told is about the wrong body in a grave (great premise!) but is actually about campanology and obscure church traditions…awesome, so why put your detective in it, then? If Christie wrote a book in which Poirot discussed the etymology of the English breakfast for the first two thirds and then found a forger using undisclosed clues in the last 80 pages people would be up in arms. I’ve never quite understood how Sayers could venture so far from the staples of classic detection and yet still be talked of in the same breath as the likes of Carr (who at least gets some grief for the relatively minor detection aspects of his historicals), Christie, Brand, Crofts, Marsh, etc.

          Tey never once got close to fair-play detection in her life. And don’t anyone throw The Franchise Affair at me — it’s a wonderful book, her best by some margin, but acres of that its solution come out of frank nowhere when the declining number of remaining pages require it.

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          • “I’ve never quite understood how Sayers” etc.: I can only speak for myself obviously, but I think that people just enjoy the experience of reading her, and aren’t committed to staying within specific genre parameters. At any rate, that describes me, and I venture to extrapolate….

            All the more so with Tey. I agree with “never once got close to fair-play detection,” but the only time that truly bothers me is The Man in the Queue, which acts as if it’s going to be a properly clued mystery, and gives us honking new information pages before the end. OK, and when we finally get down to solving something, late in The Singing Sands (very pleasurable up to that point), and it all just turns out an insultingly perfunctory and irrelevant mess. Otherwise, my mind just enjoys the experience of reading what she writes, and I don’t care if she’s coloring within particular lines.

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          • I’m fond of “The Nine Tailors” because I’ve spent some time travelling around the Fens, and so the novel’s descriptions of landscape are familiar and evocative — flat grey fields, drains and sluices and flooded washes; roads in poor repair with sharp bends and ditches; villages with names like “Wiggenhall St Mary”; churches with square towers; suspicion of outsiders. The Fens remain much as described and church traditions have not quite gone down into obscurity yet.

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      • Interesting. The two novels of Sayers’ that I remember with some fondness are precisely “Murder Must Advertise” and “The Nine Tailors”. Nowadays, I feel that I’d probably be bored out of my mind with the latter, mainly because of all that bellringing, while it’s the former I always keep in the back of my mind when I get too disparaging of Sayers’ work – “Remember, she did write ‘Murder Must Advertise’, which was an entertaining mystery novel”.

        Somewhere in the back of my mind I also have a kind of half-hearted feeling that her early works are sort of okay, it’s only with the introduction of Harriet Vane that things go completely pear-shaped. The first Vane novel I remember as readable though Wimsey’s lovesickness rankled, “Have His Carcase” was an okay mystery made far too long, and the last two are execrable.

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        • “Have His Carcase” was an okay mystery made far too long

          Yes, as someone who is intrigued by the impossibility therein I do curse the verbosity that clearly afflicts that book: goddamn, it is so much wider than all Sayers’ other novels.

          *sigh* I’m going to hate it, aren’t I?

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          • I was at a mystery shop several years ago, and naturally the only GAD that they had was Christie, Marsh, and Sayers. I thought “ah, might as well see if they have Have His Carcase, I recall there being an intriguing sounding footprints mystery.” When I saw the Lord of the Rings-length tome, I slowly backed away from the shelf.

            I’ve heard enough comments that suggest that Sayers may not be my thing, and so the thought of tackling a triple length novel for my first try doesn’t exactly appeal to me. It’s a pity, because I’m curious about the impossibility (take the bullet for me JJ!!!). No matter how good of a puzzle, I can’t imagine it providing sustenance for more than 250 pages (vintage paperback page count). I’ve never finished an impossible crime and thought “boy, I wish that was longer.”

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            • I have a feeling that the only way I’ll get through it is to commit to a Spoiler Warning post or similar.

              In fact, that’s not a bad idea…

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  5. Very surprised by how many people have bounced off the Wimsey novels; I adore (most of) them. Have His Carcase has some wonderful Peter/Harriet moments and a brilliant resolution to the alibi problem. But yeah, her short stories are great, and I’m glad you enjoyed these.

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    • Very surprised by how many people have bounced off the Wimsey novels

      Me too! And, yes, when her stories are good they’re very good indeed; might take on the “sundry others” section — non-series stories — before I dive into the Wimseys, as I have a feeling that a general sympathy with Sayers’ approach will help when she starts lecturing me in that didactic tone of hers.

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  6. I’ve never been a great Sayers fan, especially anything involving Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane but you have to admire the plotting sometimes. I think I was greatly influenced by Julian Symon’s ‘Bloody Murder ‘ in the early 70s. He hated Sayers with a passion and this has always coloured my view.
    I’ve recently read “The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories’ edited by Patricia Craig. It seems to be a quite well-regarded selection so why Craig chose ‘Murder at Pentecost’ which, as you intimate, is rubbish to represent Sayers is perplexing.
    As for Michael Innes, I’d never been able to get past chapter two of anything he’d written but I recently acquired ‘Hamlet. Revenge! ‘ having heard it was one of his best. Well after a slow start it was well worth it in the end. Very dense, not at all a book you could skim through but a good pay-off and some exciting bits in the denouement.

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    • [Symons] hated Sayers with a passion and this has always coloured my view.

      I’m due to read my first Symons novel shortly, so it’s going to be interesting to consider it in view of his dislike of Sayers. I was always under the impression that Symons thought the detective novel should do more, and so I would have thought Sayers’ o’er-reaching bombast would have been right up his alley.

      I’m sure there’s something in Innes that I’m missing out on, but I’ve struggled enough through his turgid prose — only my opinion, peeps, everyone remain calm — and have no desire to do so ever again. Maybe I’ll get lucky and run out of GAD in my 80s and find him delightful, but for now there is still so much more in the genre to read — and all that self-published impossible crime fiction, and the Three Investigators — so I’m more than happy to put him aside for when I might eventually give up childish things 🙂

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      • Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging was either the first GAD or the first non-Christie GAD book I read, and I still like it, but the only other Innes I’ve read has been Sands of Thyme, which is ugh. Based on what I’ve heard, I had a very narrow escape.

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        • I find it staggeringly hard to believe that Innes wrote no short fiction more worthy of anthologising than ‘The Sands of Thyme’. Sure, I could be at fault for the sorts of anthologies I’m reading…but am I wrong in saying it’s easily his most-anthologised short story>? And it’s so bad you wonder just how terrible everything else he did in this form was…surely it can’t all be like that?!

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    • I like Hamlet, Revenge! a lot myself. (Apparently I like all the things I ought not, around here; I think the Wimseys get BETTER with the advent of Harriet.) Remembering how I enjoyed it, I would from time to time try another of his, only to be unable to finish it without pushing myself. And I can’t remember anything about any of the others except that one of them was all about triplets and seemed as if it should have been a fun romp.

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      • For what it’s worth, I read a bucketload of Inneses back in the day and enjoyed them all except Appleby’s End, which I thought was a bit of a cheat and an example of an author being too clever for his own good.

        I tried a couple of his JIM Stewart mainstream novels, on the basis of having enjoyed his Innes novels, and was lucky if I got through the first chapter of either.

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  7. Some of Symons on Sayers:

    ‘In reading her novels and short stories it is impossible not to admire the careful craftsmanship with which they have been made. Her plots are organised with care, the details she produces about a means of murder are often original and always carefully researched’

    BUT ‘there can be no doubt that by any reasonable standards applied to writing ,as distinct from plotting , she was pompous and boring. Every book contains an enormous amount of padding ,in the form of conversations which, although they may have a distant connection with the plot,are spread over a dozen pages where the plot could be covered in as many lines’

    ‘It would be charitable to think that Wimsey, like Sheringham was conceived as a joke ,but, unhappily, there is every indication that Sayers regarded him with the most delicate regard’

    at last in ‘Gaudy Night’ she had ,as she thought, succeeded in ‘choosing a plot that should exhibit intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world and so managed to say ‘the things that ,in a confused way, I had been wanting to say all my life’ There is a breathtaking gap here between intention and achievement’.

    BUT ‘Dorothy Sayers’ short stories treat their subjects with an ease that most of the novels lack ,and they are free from the worst excesses of Wimsey. Within the space of thirty pages there is mercifully no room for Wimsey-Bunter dialogue…’

    And there’s much more. Symons’ was pretty left-wing and the snobbishness and pomposity seems at the root of his dislike

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    • I love reading people who say “there can be no doubt…” when clearly there IS doubt: Plenty of others have put their contrary opinions on record. I suppose all of us have been guilty of confusing our own reactions with Self-Evident Truth, but one expects a writers of Symons’s experience to have a little more self-awareness (even some humor) about it.

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