Why this Blog?

A place where I can lament the changing times; for eccentric comments on current affairs and for unfashionable views, expressed I hope, in cogent style; also occasional cris de coeur largely concerned, I regret to say, with myself.


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Monday 4 March 2013

Culture & The Detective Novel

They do best who if they cannot but admit love, yet make it keep quarter, and sever it  from their serious affairs and actions of life; for if it check once with business it troubleth men's fortunes, and maketh men that they can no ways be true to their own words.*


Literary commentators are apt from time to time to refer to "The Golden Age" of detective fiction.  This spans a period from the late 1920s and runs through to the 1950s.  English authors mentioned in connexion with this genre include Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I have read all of these writers - not all their works of course, except those of Miss Sayers, who was by far and away the finest of them, at least in regard to depth of characterisation and literary quality.  Consequent to this was her exceptional writing on emotions within a relationship, this of course being the famous  relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane that was developed over four novels.  The fact that her plots were implausible (except perhaps for the Nine Tailors) or shall we say more kindly, a little fabulous, and sometimes including a fundamental flaw (e.g. in Murder must Advertise) for me in no way detracts from her wonderful writing.  

Revisionist lefty critics like to point to Sayers' snobbery and even racism, but of course this is bollocks, since every revisionist is axiomatically anachronistic; these books were written in the 1930s.

Here's an example of the quality of Miss Sayers' writing from Gaudy Night:  Harriet Vane, an alumna of Oxford University is at her old college having been asked by the dons to investigate some strange goings-on there.  She has not been there for ten years and finds herself deeply attracted to academe and the calm of the "City of Dreaming Spires."  Thus inspired she sits down and composes a sonnet:

Here, then, at home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east or west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best,
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest.

This is followed by a short critique...  I challenge any of you to find any other detective writer who could compose such a poem or indeed has done.  There are I daresay, those who will ask "what has a sonnet to do with a detective story?" but that would perhaps be to misunderstand the "golden age" wouldn't it?

(Ironically that poem has strange relevance to me since the feeling it describes was known to me for just a few short months at the end of 2011 after nearly two years of misery; I shall never know such peace again I fear.)

But Miss Sayers has not finished!

Later in the book, her hero Lord Peter (every bit as erudite as his true love) completes the sonnet in a rather clever and off-beat way thus:

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more.

Again Miss Sayers follows this with a nice critique (in Harriet's thoughts of course).  This is I insist, elegant stuff and heartily recommended to lovers of good English everywhere.

And the elegant quotation from Francis Bacon, at the top of this article appears at the beginning of chapter 3 of Gaudy Night.   

Dorothy L. Sayers eventually had had enough of writing detective fiction, and moved off in other directions including a religious play and a translation of Dante, uncompleted at her death in 1957.  Jill Paton Walsh has completed an unfinished (by Sayers) Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet!) story, Thrones Dominations, and has also written another from scratch, The Attenbury Emeralds.

I should like to add in closing this piece that there are just two other detective writers from whom I am able to derive an equal degree of pleasure: Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, both very able observers of the human condition but neither of course English!

Until the next time.

*Throughout my life I have failed in this regard

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