Dorothy Leigh Sayers (13 June 1893 17 December 1957) was an English writer, best known for her detective fiction, particularly the novels and stories featuring Amateur Sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Her crime fiction also included many more short stories (of which eleven featured another amateur sleuth, the contrastingly lower-class Montague Egg) and the novel The Documents in the Case, co-written with Robert Eustace. After the death of her greatly admired G. K. Chesterton, she would herself become president of The Detection Club, an association of authors united to maintain the highest standards in the genre.
Before the detective fiction career took off, she worked as a copywriter at a London advertising agency, where she worked on a long-running series of ads for Guinness and created a sensationally successful viral marketing campaign for Colman's Mustard. (Some years later, she set one of her Lord Peter mysteries in an advertising agency.)
She was also a playwright, whose works frequently examined moral and theological questions. They include The Devil to Pay, a retelling of the Faust legend; and the 12-play cycle The Man Born to Be King, a dramatization of the life of Jesus commissioned by BBC Radio. Sayers felt that religious drama was frequently undramatic, populated by flat characters who mouthed archaic dialogue while going through the overfamiliar motions, and strove to avoid this in her play cycle, presenting the characters as real people who speak in contemporary language and are motivated by everyday (and occasionally trivial) concerns. The approach was inevitably controversial, but widely regarded as a success.
In later life, Sayers began work on a translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. She had completed Inferno and Purgatorio, and was working on Paradiso when she died; the work was completed by her colleague and later biographer, Dr. Barbara Reynolds, and published posthumously. (Dr. Reynolds has also edited four volumes of selected letters by Sayers.)
Sayers was also a Sherlock Holmes fan, and a noted player of the Great Game of Holmesian "scholarship". Her contributions include a famous argument for the proposition that Doctor Watson's middle name was "Hamish", and an essay that combined actual historical evidence with the few clues in the Canon to deduce not only where and when Holmes attended university, but where he stayed and which classes he took.
One of the strangest theories to arise from Sayers's work concerns the character Harriet Vane, the love interest of Lord Peter Wimsey. A popular literary theory of the time called biographical criticism held that all fiction was Self-Insert Fic, and that any character bearing even a passing resemblance to the author must be a full-on God-Mode Sue.note Sayers was one of the strongest voices condemning this theory, most notably in the preface to her 1941 religious commentary The Mind of the Maker.
Stung by the vehemence of her rebuttal, literary critics attacked Sayers personally, claiming that Vane, an erudite Oxford-educated mystery writer, was a blatant Author Avatar created to allow Sayers to vicariously "marry" Lord Peter. This bizarre theory unfortunately gained credence due to a number of factors. Sayers was fiercely protective of her privacy, so much so that few knew of her (for the time) romantically adventurous personal life.note Many critics, those who knew her only by her Christian writings and her superficial physical appearance, assumed she was a pathetic, dried-up old lesbian who had created Harriet so she could have a vicarious love affair without subjecting herself to tiresome sex. (Keep in mind that lesbianism was seen at the time not as active attraction to women but as rejection of sex, since naturally sex was for and about men.) This theory arose during Sayers's lifetime and became one of her Berserk Buttons — in fact, she went as far as to deny that Vane was an Author Avatar note — and it gained momentum after her death. It's only since the recent publication of a frank biography and of her own letters that critics have realized just how far off the mark these ideas actually were (and how ironic, if said critics had realised quite how much Sayers had in common with Vane.)
She is a member of the group of female detective novelists known to readers as "The Big Four"; the other three are Ngaio Marsh (who gleefully spread the "dried-up old prune in love with her creation" rumours), Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Most critics consider her the best writer of the four.
Her works include:
- Mystery Fiction:
- The Lord Peter Wimsey series
- The Montague Egg series
- The Documents in the Case (with Robert Eustace) (1930) — An epistolary novel.
- The Floating Admiral (with other members of The Detection Club) (1931) — Sayers wrote one chapter.
- Hangman's Holiday (1933) — Short stories, including four Lord Peter Wimsey stories, six Montague Egg stories, and two independent stories.
- Ask a Policeman (with other members of The Detection Club) (1933) — Sayers wrote one chapter.
- Six against the Yard (with other members of The Detection Club) (1936) — Includes the short story "Blood Sacrifice", also included in In the Teeth of the Evidence (see below).
- Double Death (with other members of The Detection Club) (1939) — Sayers wrote one chapter.
- In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939) — Short stories, including two Lord Peter Wimsey stories, five Montague Egg stories, and ten independent stories.
- The Zeal of Thy House (1937) — A pageant-play telling the story of William of Sens, architect of Canterbury cathedral
- He That Should Come (1938) — A radio-play telling the story of the Nativity
- The Devil To Pay (1939) — A pageant-play retelling the story of Faust
- Love All (1940) — A comedy
- The Man Born to Be King (1941) — A series of 12 radio-plays recounting the life of Christ
- The Just Vengeance (1946) — A pageant-play using the death of an Airman to examine the theological dogma of the Atonement
- The Emperor Constantine (1951) — A pageant-play recounting the life of the first Christian Roman emperor and his involvement with the Council of Nicaea
- Tristan in Brittany (1929) — Translated from the Tristan of Thomas the Anglo-Norman (Old French)
- The Heart of Stone (1946) — Translated Odes from the Convivio of Dante Alighieri (Italian)
- The Divine Comedy, Part 1: Hell (1949) — Translated from the Commedia (Inferno) of Dante Alighieri (Italian)
- The Divine Comedy, Part 2: Purgatory (1955) — Translated from the Commedia (Purgatorio) of Dante Alighieri (Italian)
- The Song of Roland (1957) — Translated from the Chanson de Roland of Turoldus(?) (Old French)
- The Divine Comedy, Part 3: Paradise (1962) — Translated from the Commedia (Paradiso) of Dante Alighieri (Italian) — Incomplete; finished by Dr. Barbara Reynolds
- Critical, Sociological, and Theological Works:
- Begin Here (1940) — An essay on war-goals and peace-goals
- The Mind of the Maker (1941) — An application of Trinitarian theology to the three-fold mind of the human creator
- Unpopular Opinions (1946) — Essays, including "The Mysterious English," "Are Women Human?," and "Dr. Watson's Middle Name"
- Creed or Chaos? And Other Essays in Popular Theology (1947) — Essays, including "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," "Why Work?," and "The Other Six Deadly Sins"
- Introductory Papers on Dante (1954) — Essays, including "The Meaning of Heaven and Hell," "The Meaning of Purgatory," and "Dante's Cosmos"
- Further Papers on Dante (1957) — Essays, including "And Telling You A Story," "The Divine Poet and the Angelic Doctor" and "Dante and Milton"
- The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement (1963) — Essays, including "The Lost Tools of Learning," "The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil," and "Oedipus Simplex"
Works by Dorothy L. Sayers with their own trope pages include:
- Lord Peter Wimsey series
- Montague Egg series
- The Documents in the Case
- The Emperor Constantine
- The Man Born to Be King
Other works by Dorothy L. Sayers provide examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptation Decay: In-universe, a motive for murder in "Blood Sacrifice".
- Berserk Button: Sayers had more buttons than an elevator in the Empire State Building. For example:
- Leaving the L out of Sayers' name. (It stood for "Leigh," her mother's maiden name, by the way.) According to her letters, it was because she was confused with a popular 1920's burlesque queen named Dorothy Sayer, whose press-clippings were occasionally sent to Sayers in error. She also thought leaving the "L" out induced people to pronounce her name as an "ugly spondee," "Say-Ers," instead of her preferred monosyllabic "Sairs."
- Suggesting that she alter her work for some non-artistic reason, such as "audience acceptability" or "to inspire Christian feelings." Even her friend C. S. Lewis got it in the neck for this one.
- Executive Meddling, such as nearly happened in the case of her radio-play, The Man Born to Be King. When the BBC Children's Hour insisted on its right to control its content, she sent them a letter, stuffed with the tiny torn-up pieces of her contract.
- Nearly at the end of her life, she was outraged by the novelist Robert Graves's sneering translation of the Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus — some two thousand years after Lucan's death.
- She was also scornful of the idea that Harriet Vane (or Lord Peter, for that matter) was an Author Avatar, for reasons mentioned above. (Though she admitted she got a certain amount of vicarious pleasure in describing Lord Peter's luxurious lifestyle while she was still in the starving artist stage of her career as a novelist.)
- Blood Transfusion Plot: "Blood Sacrifice" has incompatible blood as the murder method.
- Corrupt Church: The Priest in The Devil to Pay; Caiaphas in The Just Vengeance
- Council of Angels: In her play, The Zeal of Thy House
- Cultural Translation: In her translation of The Divine Comedy.
- Deal with the Devil: In The Devil to Pay, obviously
- God: Owing to the anti-blasphemy laws that formerly obtained in the United Kingdom, it was illegal to bring God as a character onto the stage; Sayers got around this by presenting Him either in radio-drama (as in The Man Born to Be King) or under another name (e.g., as "The Judge" in The Devil to Pay or as the "Persona Dei" in The Just Vengeance).
- Gone Horribly Right: The sulphate of thanatol prank in The Man who Knew How cost the prankster his life when someone took it seriously.
- Historical Domain Character: William of Sens in The Zeal of Thy House; George Fox and Dr. Samuel Johnson in The Just Vengeance. (The Pope and Emperor in The Devil to Pay are carefully unnamed; research had shown Sayers that the contemporary pope was one of the Borgias!)
- Mr. Smith: Sayers planned out a series of stories (of which only one, "The Leopard Lady," was ultimately published) in which an organization called "Smith & Smith Removals" (featuring Mr. Smith, Mr. Smythe, Mr. Schmidt, and so on) contracts to murder for profit.
- My Hair Came Out Green: In "The Inspiration of Mr Budd".
- Official Parody: In "Ask A Policeman", the authors swapped detectives; so Sayers' chapter features Anthony Berkeley's detective Roger Sheringham, and Berkeley's chapter has Lord Peter.
- Ritual Magic: In The Devil To Pay, Sayers' take on the Faust legend, Mephistopheles is conjured by rituals that Sayers found in actual Renaissance grimoires.
- Shout-Out: Not uncommon with Sayers; for instance, a passage describing Peter and John in The Zeal of Thy House was deliberately modeled on a passage in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy — a book which she credited for her re-dedication to Christianity when she was a teenager.
- There are a number of references to other detective stories, in particular the Dr. Thorndyke stories of R. Austin Freeman (referred to as 'Austin Freeman' by Sayers). In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club it's even suggested that the villain was inspired by the Thorndyke stories—which is subtly foreshadowed by the mention of a Trichinopoly cheroot, Thorndyke's trademark singular vice, early in the story.