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.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hooked from the Start? Part Two: Daphne du Maurier

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." This is the first line of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, one of the most memorable of opening lines. I don't remember how old I was when I first read Rebecca--perhaps I read it in college or during my first year of teaching.

Rebecca is the most famous of du Maurier's books but the novel that stands out the most in my mind is The House on the Strand. According to Wikipedia it was considered as science fiction but to me, it was my first foray into time travel. The book mesmerized me.

And the first line: "The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land." No, the first line was not the reason I started reading the book. I read it because I loved du Maurier's books. But the time travel element hooked me and has been the greatest influence on a series of time travel novels of my own, which I'm writing now. I read the novel in the early 1970s and the aspect of time travel lived on in my sub-conscious. In subsequent time travel novels by other writers, the protagonist interacts with the people of the culture he/she is visiting. Not so in The House on the Strand. The male protagonist took a drug that transported him back in time to early 14th century England and he was an observer only except that as he followed one of the inhabitants of that time period, he traversed over 20th century terrain, not noticing where he was in reality. My time traveling protagonist will be an observer also but she won't be drugged. Her ability to go back to the past will come from something inherent inside her and from ancient relics that she touches.

Of all the novels I've read, The House on the Strand is the one that has influenced my way of thinking about time travel and how I want to write my own time travel novels.