Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Golden Age of Mystery

Dorothy L. Sayers was, according to Wikipedia, "a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays."

This little essay, however, deals only with her mystery sleuth and some personal bits about her life. I haven't read a Sayers novel since 1998 but I have read most of her Lord Peter Wimsey dectective novels. I fell in love with Lord Peter in the British mystery series on Masterpiece Theater. After seeing the first episode, I started reading the books. Of the novels I have read, my favorites are The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcase.

From my point of view, Lord Peter was aristocratic, rich and charming. And Wikipedia notes that he was also "well-educated and brave, as well as an accomplished musician, an exceptional athlete, and a notable lover." My goodness! Who wouldn't like the guy?? But Wikipedia also says that he had "serious flaws: the habit of over-engaging in what other characters regard as silly prattling, a nervous disorder (shell-shock) and a fear of responsibility. The latter two both originate from his service in World War I. The fear of responsibility turns out to be a serious obstacle to his maturation into full adulthood (a fact not lost on the character himself)."

Lord Peter had a love interest in Harriet Vane who was featured in four novels. Some have criticized the character for being a stand-in for the author. I can't see the harm in that. The author herself must have been in love with her own creation of Lord Peter.

After having read the autobiography of Agatha Christie recently, I have become intrigued by the personal lives of these ladies who wrote such clever mysteries. Dorothy Sayers led a most unconventional life although today her life would not seem that way. She had affairs with men she fell in love with and even had a son out of wedlock. She placed him with relatives and tried to keep her relationship with him a secret. He called her Aunt Dorothy but knew, at least as he grew older, that she was his mother. She did eventually marry and had a successful marriage.

Although I have read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, there are several books of short stories featuring him that I have not read and I look forward to reading those as well as the mysteries that don't include Lord Peter.

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