While I read widely and in a variety of genres, my favorite fiction books are invariably British detective stories, and the author I like best of all in that genre is Dorothy L. Sayers. I first discovered the Lord Peter Wimsey novels just after I graduated from university. I don’t remember now just how I found them, but I suspect that I was wandering in the public library after work one evening and picked one up. Or it could be that someone recommended them to me, knowing I enjoyed Agatha Christie. At that point, I had read most of Christie and was looking for a new author.
However it came about, I soon discovered how much I liked Sayers. Her plots were clever but fair. The clues were always there if you looked hard enough for them, but she didn’t make it easy for you. The first several Lord Peter novels are not great character studies. As much as I enjoyed them, Peter seemed a bit too good to be true and Bunter was almost too perfect. The mystery plots are gems though. Where else would you read about advertising agencies or change ringing (ringing of the bells in church towers)?
In each book, there is a depth of knowledge that enhances the reader’s experience. There is something to learn, something to dig into, something to be exposed to for the first time in such a way that your interest is grabbed and you can’t wait to find out more.
For instance, I had never read much about the fens and how they flood. A cricket match was a plot point in one novel, and I’ve been intrigued by the game ever since I first read about bowling and achieving a century. I suspect that Bellona Club is the origination of my interest in World War I and Remembrance Day is now a date on my calendar (Veteran’s Day for us in the U.S.). I learned that Dukes were tried by the House of Lords rather than in a regular court so that they could be tried by a jury of their peers (this right was abolished in 1948). Lord Peter novels first introduced me to first editions, the color primrose, shell shock, and the lot of a generation of unmarried women due to the numerous casualties in the Great War.
My favorite books are those with Harriet Vane. She was introduced in Strong Poison. Shockingly for the time period, she was on trial for the murder of her lover. In the 1930’s, good girls didn’t live with men who weren’t their husbands, and Harriet’s background (daughter of a country doctor) seemed to indicate that she was one of the good girls.
However, she lived in Bloomsbury and had picked up some of the Bohemian ways of that set. For a time she had set up house with an artist, but broke off with him several months before the events in Strong Poison took place. Her ex-lover was murdered, she was accused, and Lord Peter first saw her in court while she was being tried for the crime.
Harriet brings a three-dimensional character to the Wimsey books that makes them good novels as well as great detective puzzles. Her inner dialogues, choices, and interactions with Peter help to elevate the books to a higher level than most other mysteries. Gaudy Night, one of my top five favorite novels of all time, is a masterpiece of learning, character, plot, and description. When I finally had the opportunity to go to Oxford for the first time not many months after reading Gaudy Night, I walked the streets with Harriet beside me.
Busman’s Honeymoon introduced me to poetry and one of my favorite poets—John Donne. I especially enjoyed the quote game Harriet and Peter play with the police inspector. My school French was required to translate a letter written to Peter in that language. There is no translation because Sayers assumed that her readers spoke that language as many educated people did in her day.
If Sayers had just written these detective stories, she would be remembered as an author. However, she also wrote plays, essays, and produced an excellent translation of Dante. In fact, her translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso were the first I encountered and they still have a special place in my heart. Her essays are amazing, and one of my favorites, The Dogma is the Drama, is a first rate defense of the importance of theology to the Christian.
Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s works and about her life helped me to realize that Christians can be intellectuals. I found many more Christian intellecturals afterwards, but her top notch scholarship combined with her strong Christian faith gave me “permission” to be a thinking Christian.
I had been surrounded by Christians all my life but it was mostly those who weren’t Christians who read the Great Books and wrote strong essays and became scholars. Sayers introduced me to the grand tradition of the Christian scholar and the fact that women can be scholars, too.
Her study of medieval Italian during the air raids of World War II sent me back to my Latin and gave me the desire to read medieval literature. Her theological essays gave me the impetus to go deeper in my own theological studies. And, of course, her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, was one of the main starting points to the eighteen years of homeschooling I did with my children. I wanted that kind of education for them. I wanted them to be as learned, as tough-minded, and as logical in their thinking as she was.
I became a scholar, a thinker, a true reader, a lover of poetry, and a writer as a result of my first picking up a mystery novel. That’s an amazing influence and the reason I place Sayers in the top five of all time best mystery novelists. She certainly earned her title as one of the Queens of Crime. I highly recommend her novels for anyone who likes detective fiction or just wants a good book to read. Who knows? You may be inspired to go off on an intellectual journey of your own as a result.