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.
As a GAD reader, there’s little more satisfying than closing a book that came through on its promise — the ingenious impossibilitiy was ingenious, the baffling alibi trick was smartly worked, the clues stuck their heads out at you from all over the place, and the detective summed it all up with an added twist just to prove how dolt-headed you, the reader, are.
If you’ve been paying attention, especially to my comments left both here and elsewhere, you’ll be aware that my typing is rather famously variable. 90% of the time I’m good, but that other 10% — man, some errors there are. Writing something recently, I made reference to the novel Five Little Pugs by Agatha Christie and then — catching myself in time to correct it — I had a thought…
In light of my recent favourable experience with Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), my thoughts turn to the benefits and pitfalls of reading GAD authors’ novels in chronological order. The old joke is that they had to write them in that order, but is there any real benefit or detriment in reading them so arrayed?
George Orwell’s essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946) is focussed not on the quality of said fictional undertakings but rather the attitudes of a society suffering the “brutalising effects of war” and thus immune to the horror of murder the perspectives of both commission and punishment. Citing the case of the Cleft Chin Murder, in which three people were killed with no meaningful motivation and the opprobrium of the public was vented upon the couple responsible, the sentiment of the final line is easily the most powerful; “crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them”.
In October 1944 and January 1945, the American newspaper columnist, writer, and critic Edmund Wilson published two essays entitled, respectively, ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’. The second was in response to the exhortations from readers who, appalled by the first, sent him recommendations to improve his outlook…recommendations which, by all accounts, failed miserably.