Monday, October 13, 2008

Homage to Dorothy Sayers

I might have called this "On the Women In My Life" but thought that might give you the wrong idea. It's not about my mother, or my aunts or grandmothers, or my teachers - I can never be sufficiently grateful to them for all their kindness and hard work. Nor is it about Mary and Anna and Mary Magdalen and Agatha and Lucy and Cecilia and Catherine and Therese and Margaret and Clare... the holy and great women's chorus of saints. Someday it might be fun to talk about them. And again, it is not about Marie Curie or Maria Gaetana Agnesi or Alessandra Giliani or Grace Hopper, all great scientists and intellectuals and polymaths.

No; today I recall Dorothy Leigh Sayers - a woman who was a great intellectual; I cannot speak about her personal character, but I have reason to think she struggled and indeed longed for holiness, based on her books like Creed or Chaos? or the very interesting The Mind of the Maker (which talks about the connection between divine and human creation) and the wonderful radio-play series "The Man Born To Be King" (No, that doesn't mean Aragorn!) and her amazing translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.

But not merely for those do I reverence her. It is for her work in the writing of "detective fiction" - of mysteries. About them Chesterton had this to say: "I am glad to note that Miss Dorothy Sayers ... is one of those who do write murder stories as if they could write something else." [ILN Aug 17 1929 CW35:149] Like GKC, she did write "something else" besides "murder stories" and they are well worth reading. Someone might claim this is mere professional courtesy; rather I think it reveals the richness of such writers. Consider this:
Let anyone recall for himself the very finest passages in the Book of Common Prayer, and he will soon see that they are concerned specially with spiritual thoughts and themes that now seem strange and terrible; but anyhow, the reverse of common; " the hour of death and in the day of judgment." Who talks about the hour of death? Who talks about the Day of judgment? Only a litter of shabby little priests from the Italian Mission. Not certainly the popular and eloquent Dean of Bumblebury, who is so Broad and yet so High. Certainly not the charming and fashionable Vicar of St. Ethelbald's, who is so High and yet so Broad. Still less the clergyman helping in the same parish, who is frankly Low. It is the same on every page, where that spirit inspires that style. "Suffer us not, for any pains of death, to fall from Thee." ... "Ah, that's what gets you" (or words to that effect), as Lord Peter Wimsey truly said of this phrase, in the detective tale of Miss Dorothy Sayers; who, like Lord Peter, knows a good deal about other things besides poisons; and understands her hero's historical traditions very well.
[GKC "My Six Conversions: IV. The Prayer-Book Problem" in The Well and the Shallows CW3:374]
Yes, that is what gets you - authors who not only know and reference other authors, but who dare to know and reference the Author.

In one of her best murder stories Sayers wrote this most Chestertonian phrase which is the perfect description of her work:
"...she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have."
[DLS Strong Poison]
I shall honour her today in two ways. First, by quoting a very famous essay by Chesterton which illumines the true and most Christian nature of detective fiction, and binds it intimately to the Great Mystery called the Gospel:
Generally, instinctively, in the absence of any special reason, humanity hates the idea of anything being hidden - that is, it hates the idea of anything being successfully hidden. Hide-and-seek is a popular pastime; but it assumes the truth of the text, "Seek and ye shall find." [Mt 7:7] Ordinary mankind (gigantic and unconquerable in its power of joy) can get a great deal of pleasure out of a game called "hide the thimble," but that is only because it is really a game of "see the thimble." Suppose that at the end of such a game the thimble had not been found at all; suppose its place was unknown for ever: the result on the players would not be playful, it would be tragic. That thimble would hag-ride all their dreams. They would all die in asylums. The pleasure is all in the poignant moment of passing from not knowing to knowing. Mystery stories are very popular, especially when sold at sixpence; but that is because the author of a mystery story reveals. He is enjoyed not because he creates mystery, but because he destroys mystery. Nobody would have the courage to publish a detective-story which left the problem exactly where it found it. That would rouse even the London public to revolution. No one dare publish a detective-story that did not detect.
[GKC ILN Aug 10 1907 CW27:523-4]
Yes, GKC's work on the metaphysics of "Story" in general and "Detective-Story" in particular is still awaiting serious study. (But we have no time for that today; we are too busy writing stories. Hee hee.)

The second way I honour her is by announcing the posting of the next chapter of my novel, which bears as subtitle one of her own chapter-titles: "The Great Nutrax Row", which comes from what GKC called (in his ILN essay of Feb 25, 1933) an "excellent crime novel", Murder Must Advertise, and which I thoroughly recommend. It will in no way spoil my story for you; there is no "Nutrax" in my story though there are drugs, and there is advertising, but the world changed a little since the 1930s. Then, advertisements were in newspapers, and spacing and font size and illustrations were of concern, my advertisements are thirty-second spots played on ad inserters for the networks of cable TV... Even the world I describe has changed, if not utterly vanished - but the people are still the same, as much as they were for Sayers and Chesterton - or even for Daniel - in chapters 13 and 14 you will find two of the earliest known detective short stories! (Oh, yes; even Sherlock Holmes used Daniel's techniques. It's elementary.)

You will not find a lot of cross-links from her (or GKC) to my story, except in the general flavour, which multiple readings of such writers cannot help but impart to any non-trivial writing effort. But just as she followed Chesterton as president of the Detection Club, for me she follows him in importance as a writer. And therefore I express my gratitude for her work, and her wonderful stories, which I, like GKC, have enjoyed.


At 13 October, 2008 22:30, Blogger Unknown said...

"To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures." -- Dorothy Sayers


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