A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.
Dorothy L. Sayers and the excelsior principle
“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails …”
from Why Do People Read Detective Stories? by Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker, October, 1944
Despite the fact that I’m starting off with a quote from Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most well-known foe of the traditional detective novel, no, this is not a hatchet job about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is reasonably well known among my acquaintance among GAD aficionados that I’m not a big fan, but recently I had occasion to re-read her work pretty much from scratch. And in the way of such re-examinations twenty or thirty years later, I got a different idea than I’d had when I was younger.
The main reason I didn’t enjoy reading DLS when I was younger, as I recall, was because of the presence of a great deal of … let’s call it excelsior, for the moment. (Which is defined as “softwood shavings used for packing fragile goods or stuffing furniture”, if you were wondering.) Simply put, DLS stuffs her books with great volumes of extraneous material that apparently has nothing to do with the mystery or its solution. Some of it I think would be called “characterization”, some is “social history”, some is background material.
When I first started thinking about this piece, I thought I’d test my hypothesis. I selected a DLS title at random from my shelves, which contain all her titles; my hand found The Nine Tailors. I opened the book at random and found … well, unfortunately DLS has divided this work into chapters in a way that has more to do with campanology than common sense, and so “The Fourth Part” begins on page 123 of my paperback edition; that’s the best guidance I can give you.
The particular segment begins “Well, now, ma’am,” said Superintendent Blundell. It continues for a grand total of 2527 words (yes, I actually counted) and involves three separate conversations with three witnesses and the mention of about twenty named individuals, most of whom play no further part in the story. Superintendent Blundell interviews the housekeeper of the titled Thorpe family, the disagreeable and snobbish Mrs. Gates, and then gets corroborating evidence from the shrewish Mrs. Coppins and the schoolmistress Miss Snoot, about the precise placement of funeral wreaths on Lady Thorpe’s coffin. Someone has moved them in order to introduce an extra corpse into the gravesite.
The point of this 2527 words is to establish the following, which actually is the last sentence of the segment: “… [T]hat brought the time of the crime down to some hour between 7:30 p.m. on the Saturday and, say, 8:30 on the Sunday morning.” Twenty-four words. The other 2503 words concern the opinions and personalities primarily of Mrs. Gates, who has extensive and unpleasant opinions about the placement of funeral wreaths with respect to the social status of the wreath-giver, the financial circumstances of Mrs. Coppins’s family that brought her to give an expensive wreath of pink hot-house lilies in January, and the fact that the only schoolboy sufficiently mischievous to have moved either Mrs. Gates’s or Mrs. Coppins’s wreaths, one Tommy West, had a broken arm at the time. 24 / 2527 = 1% content, 99% excelsior. In case it’s not clear, I think this is what Edmund Wilson was getting at. His bent and rusty nails are here the time period during which the second corpse was surreptitiously buried.
Now, it is not for me or indeed anyone to say that fiction must be written economically. Most murder mysteries could be summed up in about a page if that were the case, and that would not be an enjoyable process. But a ratio of 99% excelsior to 1% rusty nails seemed rather excessive to me in my younger days. I’d always held the view that DLS’s works contained a far too small ratio of signal to noise, as it were. And there is almost zero signal here. Mrs. Gates, Mrs. Coppins, Miss Snoot and Tommy West could have been entirely eliminated from the narrative without any damage to the activities of the plot. I am not asserting that I wanted that to happen; the reader has a pleasant moment of dislike for the pompous Mrs. Gates, and has only wasted a quarter of an hour on the 2500 words of … burble.
I have had a lot of experience with good detective stories that contain extraneous material, ranging from fascinating to burble. Perhaps the most famous example was John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, where the action grinds to a halt while the characters break the fourth wall and talk about how locked-room mysteries work. A favourite of mine, Clayton Rawson, regularly veers off within his books for geometry problems and disquisitions on the history of “blue men” and “headless ladies” and all kinds of things. Edmund Crispin introduces humorous disquisitions on unpleasant characters in English literature. One might almost say that extraneous material is a hallmark of the best detective fiction. There is a caveat here, though; most of the extraneous material touches upon and/or illustrates the topic of the mystery. JDC has that chapter about locked-room mysteries because they’re involved in a locked-room mystery. When Clayton Rawson talks about how carnival sideshow acts are created, it’s because the mystery is set within a carnival. The niceties of social class as portrayed in DLS’s placement of funeral wreaths on a coffin do not seem to contribute anything to a story about jewel theft and campanology. (They emphatically contribute to our knowledge of the social history of the 1930s, I must add.)
But, dammit, I thought, Sayers was widely read in detective fiction; she was a reviewer and critic and best-seller. I don’t say that a place on the best-seller list provides an automatic assumption of literary quality; Danielle Steele and James Patterson are evidence to quite the contrary. Nevertheless DLS did bring a considerable amount of academic background in the analysis of literature to this process, and I cannot think that she was writing like this by accident. She was capable of identifying the central thread of her story, and theoretically she could eliminate material that didn’t contribute to it. If she didn’t, we have to assume she wanted it there.
So what was she getting at?
In my younger, grumpier years, I thought she was merely in love with the sound of her authorial voice and felt that her readers were as well. There is a considerable body of fannish comment on DLS that suggests that that is precisely the case; DLS fans, and there are a lot of them, just love to embark on a journey into the mechanics of becoming a phony spiritualist with Miss Climpson, or learning the principles that underlie a Playfair cipher, how to pick a lock, etc. Most of these excursions to me seem stuffed to the gunwales with excelsior (the “born-again” activities of the former burglar who teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks are a repellent example). I felt that for whatever reason, the Wimsey stories were not my style; I set them aside and smiled mechanically when people at my bookstore told me how much they loved them.
I came to this month’s worth of disquisition on DLS, though, with a more open mind than perhaps I had had in the past. It rather seemed that if so many people liked the Wimsey stories, and didn’t find them to be stuffed with excelsior, and this sentiment was shared by some of my fellow bloggers whose opinion I respect, well — there had to be something I was missing.
Then I had a flash of insight, caused by my having occasion to re-read a 1913 book considered one of the primary texts of detective fiction. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment should they not have read it yet, but I will provide a quote that I found quite meaningful in this context. And those of my readers who are familiar with this text will know exactly what I’m talking about, I trust. The detective is examining the room of a suspect.
“Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid’s hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf—pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. [Detective] crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.
The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing [suspect] and [victim] on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths—one of them unmistakably [suspect]—clothed in tatterdemalion soldier’s gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling [suspect]. [Detective], mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.
It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials [suspect’s initials].”
My readers who are familiar with this work will already be nodding their heads, because they recognize that somewhere in that morass of tiny details is a single detail that gives the detective a clue which brings him closer to his solution. And then, in a way which I understand is a characteristic of an author who is trying to hide a clue, at the end of the paragraph is a surprising revelation (the revolver). The idea is that the tiny clue vanishes from the reader’s mind because the immediate surprise supplants it. At the end, the reader can go back and say, “Oh, by golly, there WAS a such-and-such in the suspect’s bedroom, I just forgot about it because I was so focused on that revolver.”
In other words, you conceal the clue by burying it in excelsior and then distracting the reader’s attention.
With that in mind, my realization is that this is the kind of thing that DLS was trying to do. It’s not merely excelsior for the sake of it, she’s actually burying clues in it. However, there are a couple of differences. I’d say that about 75% of The Nine Tailors qualifies as pure excelsior, which is considerably more than the 1913 work quoted above. And frankly, it is hard to find the very, very few clues to the mystery that are buried within it like rusty nails — because there are so few of them. The Nine Tailors does not actually have many clues; instead it has quite a bit of psychology about who is the type of person to have committed the crimes, and why, and a lot of speculation as to how the murder could actually have been carried out. (A modern novel based on this scenario would have had a terse comment from the autopsy surgeon a few chapters after the body is discovered, and half the puzzle would have been solved in a flash, I think, if indeed the murder scenario would stand up to such scrutiny.) But it seems to me that this is what DLS was doing. She got far too fond of her talent to create excelsior, with funny accents and dimwitted rustics and the antics of the servant classes about which she could be snobby. And Wilson’s “bent and rusty nails” of clues are not much use in coming to the solution of the mystery, to be honest. Lord Peter really works most of it out by being in the wrong room at the right time, and solving a very difficult cryptogram that depends upon a knowledge of change-ringing.
This exercise, though, has taught me something of a lesson. The exercise of trying to place DLS’s writing style in context has been revealing — she is following upon the track of the older author whose name I have not mentioned. I find this contextualization reassuring; it has made me realize that she wasn’t really stepping out and creating an entirely new kind of detective fiction, but merely adapting her personal writing style to the traditions of the genre. And if it takes her 2500 words to say nothing useful at all — well, it’s taken me slightly fewer than 2500 words to say very little about her work, and I can refrain from complaining if you can!