One of the classic detective story writers

Posted by Helen Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The fact that today is the birthday of one of the best-known detective story writers, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), gives me the chance to make a little detour in conservative history, not entirely unexpectedly, in the direction of that literary genre.

I have already expressed the view that the classic detective story is a peculiarly conservative form of literature, whatever the political views of the author (Julian Symonds, for instance, was one of the plethora of left-wing men of letters) and whatever the particular point of view expressed in the novel.

A detective story depends on the existence of a society that understands certain basic rules. In fact, everybody must understand and more or less agree on those rules, including the criminal. And the most important of those is that human life is not to be taken by another human being. That is a crime against nature as well as against society. The natural order of things can be restored only by the apprehension and punishment (in some form or other) of the criminal.

Dorothy L. Sayers is not, as it happens one of my favourite detective story writers. She was too verbose, too snobbish and there was more than a trace of anti-semitism in almost all her novels. There were many other aspects to her literary work – her religious as well as literary essays, a religious play for the BBC and, of course, her translation of Dante.

Still, she is mostly known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey books (and a few stories with Montague Egg). Interestingly enough, the book that implicitly explores a conservative view of the world is one that does not have a murder in it, and that is “Gaudy Night”.

A tale of various ill deeds in an Oxford College, modelled on Somerville, it deals with subjects such as whether women should pursue careers or devote their lives to families; and whether personal relationships are of greater importance than the truth in academic pursuit.

There are many problems with the book, not least the fact that it is too long. But it does provide a vision of conservatism that is almost political: balance between the various factors. Balance between rationality and imagination, between the need to pursue career and the need to give to one’s family and, above all, balance between devotion to impersonal truth and devotion to individual human beings.


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