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Apr 23, 2023

The Morality in the Mysteries of Dorothy Sayers

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Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

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The Morality in the Mysteries of Dorothy Sayers

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Book cover, The Documents in the Case, Dorothy Sayers

I am reduced to complete pulp by Bishop Talbot, who says that in FOUR talks devoted to Why we want a God to believe in, it has not occurred to him to explain what is meant by the word ‘Sin’!!!!! You wouldn’t think anybody could overlook that theological trifle, would you?
—Dorothy L. Sayers 1

Quick, versatile, and ever ready to embrace a challenge, Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) had a diverse career arc. She began by publishing poetry and translating medieval romances, such as The Song of Roland, and ended as a recognized and respected Christian apologist, essayist, dramatist, and ambitious translator of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. She also worked in advertising as a copywriter for nearly a decade, from 1922 to 1931, and it was during this time that she began to write detective fiction. Until 1934, nearly all of her published work was related to this genre.

Sayers wrote her detective fiction during the Golden Age of detection and crime writing, which roughly spanned the interwar period, from 1913 to 1937. Like many of her contemporaries in the genre, she didn’t concern herself with her contributions alone, nor only with the fictional. She edited a total of five short detective fiction anthologies, collecting the cream of nineteenth- and twentieth-century suspense, and wrote many reviews of detective fiction.2 She was a founding member of London’s celebrated Detection Club and in 1949 became its third president (G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie were also presidents in its history). Like many of its members, she made the understanding of real cases her concern, such as when she explored the unsolved 1931 murder of Julia Wallace for the collection The Anatomy of Murder (1936).3

But one novel in particular, The Documents in the Case (1930)—the only one of nearly a dozen detective novels that doesn’t feature Lord Peter Wimsey, her famous amateur sleuth—best demonstrates how Sayers always invigorated her detective fiction with an underlying, but no less important, activity of detection for readers. This is evident in the multiple, at times conflicting, points of view this book offers as it moves between various documents written by its cast of characters; the myopia of the human condition comes to the fore as the reader recognizes and considers the gaps and spaces between perspectives—and their moral implications for the self and others both on and off the page. None of Sayers’s novels are meant to be pure entertainment or escape, nor a way to instill a false sense of safety or achievement in the reader, glad to know the murderer is caught in the end (and perhaps patting herself on the back for twigging the trail of clues and correctly guessing the guilty party before the big reveal). No. Sayers resisted this form of easy amusement; she not only wanted us to spot the murderer but also intended us to spot the Seven Deadly Sins.

Sayers possessed deep knowledge about the Sins, both through her upbringing as the only child of an Anglican rector and through her early academic interest in medievalism and Christianity. Her familiarity with the moralizing methods of medieval texts meant she regularly came across colorful, Hieronymus Bosch–esque illustrations of the Sins, like the depiction of Lust as a reckless porcupine attempting to gather apples on his quills, chasing a lost one, and ending by losing them all; or the image of Envy as so self-destructive that, when a man is told he can have whatever he wants with the understanding that a second man will have double what he requests, it motivates him to ask for the removal of one of his eyes.4

More than ten years after publishing The Documents in the Case, on October 23, 1941, Sayers delivered an address to the Public Morality Council at Caxton Hall in Westminster entitled “The Other Six Deadly Sins.”5 It was her first express examination of the Seven Deadly Sins after years of embedding them in her literary work, and she pointedly, with characteristic dry wit, closes the address with a condensed reprise of them, “just in case there is anybody who[…] has not the list at his fingertips.”6 Sayers levies her address at the Church—that is, at “you and I”—and specifically raises the issue of laxity: the laxity of church members in sufficiently identifying and countering all Seven Deadly Sins, as opposed to the hard work she sees church members putting into minimizing, or simply omitting, six of the Sins while overemphasizing Lust.7

In the address, Sayers personifies the Sins, painting their portraits within the frameworks of modern-day social behaviors. She wants to make visible the very real, deep-seated, and insidious nature of each Sin, how cunningly they shape-shift from age to age in their efforts to become Accepted Practice. Covetousness, rebranded as “Enterprise” in the twentieth century, swaggers and swashbuckles like the rake, eschewing all responsibility for the fallout of his actions. Wrath is the “mischief-maker” and, when he appears as righteous anger, becomes an “ugly form of possession,” one which we do not always see for what it is because it deftly “cloaks itself under a zeal for efficiency or a lofty resolution to expose scandals.”8 Gluttony is contextualized within the modern economy’s “vicious circle of production and consumption,” which incites the public’s “greedy hankering after goods which they do not really need.”9 Pride is “the sin of the noble mind” with the “devilish strategy” of “attack[ing] us, not on our weak points, but on our strong.”10 Sloth, meanwhile, is the “empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul […] persuad[ing] us that stupidity is not our sin, but our misfortune.”11 Avarice, a form of Covetousness, is called “the sin of the Haves against the Have-nots.” Envy is “the sin of the Have-nots against the Haves.”12

At every turn, Sayers boxes in her listeners. If you think you are free from the Seven Deadly Sins, think again. If you think your position as either poor or rich, man or woman, curate or layman, married or single somehow saves you from the worst the Sins have in their arsenal, then watch out. 

What a Novel Helps Us Detect

The Documents in the Case is an epistolary novel.13 It is presented as a dossier—of private letters, witness statements, telegrams, notes, and newspaper extracts—all organized by the son of the deceased because he does not believe that the verdict of Accidental Death following his father’s demise is true. He believes his father was murdered and is almost certain that he knows who did it. This son, a man named Paul Harrison, thus compiles all documents related to his father’s household and the events leading up to his death and sends them to a third party to ensure that his own conclusions are checked by a person without his bias. 

The deceased is a middle-aged widower named George Harrison, who remarried a younger woman, Margaret Harrison. Before his death, Mr. Harrison and his wife occupy a house in a suburb of London with a live-in housekeeper named Agatha Milsom, a middle-aged spinster. The documents open in September 1928 with a series of letters from Agatha to her sister. Agatha shares that the Harrisons have let their top-floor flat to an artist and a writer, schoolfellows who have recently reconnected. The artist, a painter named Harwood Lathom, and the writer, John Munting, each work at their own professions as the novel progresses. Munting’s letters to his fiancée reveal his concerns about his writing pursuits and their future married life. Lathom, meanwhile, begins an affair with Mrs. Harrison, whose own marriage has been a disappointment. We learn Mr. Harrison is short-tempered with his wife, often derisive, and even though he praises her in the hearing of others, he seems unable to do anything but slight her to her face. Discerning readers can already begin to detect the Sins as they manifest in the actions and lives of each character.

Mr. Harrison is also an accomplished cook who prides himself on his mushroom foraging skills. More than halfway through the novel, he invites Lathom to join him on one of his excursions in the country for this purpose. Tragedy strikes when Lathom leaves for a day only to return at night to find Mr. Harrison dead, all evidence pointing to a dish of suspect mushrooms on the stove. A ruling of Accidental Death comes in November 1929. However, Mr. Harrison’s son, Paul, cannot accept this verdict. He believes Lathom found a way to poison his father, likely at the behest of Mrs. Harrison, and made it appear as an accident. Most readers, I can easily imagine, would agree with Paul and may very well wonder if the mystery of this plot lies merely in learning how Lathom managed it. But it extends, also, to the continued unfolding of Sins across the narrative. 

This unfolding is helped by the brilliance of the epistolary novel, which allows readers to meet characters several times via multiple points of view. Each narrator is just as unreliable as the next, but together they produce a riveting authenticity, depicting both the reality of fragmented perspective and the ease with which we blind ourselves to our own faults. Frighteningly, we all stumble through life with flaws that remain easier to detect in others than in ourselves. In the narrative, the gaps and slips between viewpoints build complex portraits, and from within this complexity we begin to detect the culpabilities and shortsightedness of each character. 

Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, for instance, first appear to us in a letter Agatha writes to her sister. Agatha predominantly feels for Mrs. Harrison because she views Mr. Harrison as “such a dry sort of man[…] so lacking in sympathy.” While she's fond of Mrs. Harrison, she finds her impractical, too prone to harping on that “she ought to have been born to ten thousand a year.”14 When the novelist Munting arrives on the scene, he gives us his first impressions of the married couple. For him, Mrs. Harrison is no less than a “suburban vamp[…] entirely wrapped up[…] in her own attractions,” while Mr. Harrison “is a cut above her,” although also “an alarming bore on the subject of Art with a capital A,” always seeking attention with his paintings and cookery skills.15 We never read anything directly from the artist Lathom, but Munting relays his views. Writing in the wake of overhearing a disagreeable quarrel between Mr. and Mrs. Harrison—Mr. Harrison sullenly confronts Mrs. Harrison for arriving home late for dinner when, as it turns out, Mrs. Harrison was late because she was buying Mr. Harrison an anniversary present—Munting notes that Lathom says of Mr. Harrison, “The man is a brute.”16 Munting comments a little more fairly, but along the same vein, “I am beginning to wonder whether my neighbour goes quite the right way to assert his position as head of the household. I fancy he must have read somewhere that women like to be treated rough.”17

Sayers herself later called Mrs. Harrison “a dreadful person” and wrote that Lathom had her sympathy.18 When we come to Mrs. Harrison’s letters to Lathom, well into their affair, and read her voice directly, we find a petulant, manipulative, and selfish woman.19 She cares very much for appearances when it comes to her liaison with Lathom, refusing to simply leave her husband for him—“You can’t really think that if I love you I ought to let him divorce me. Darling, do think how horrible it would be! How could I go through all that terrible shame in public, and all my friends looking on and thinking hateful things about our beautiful love!”20 The indication is her extreme vulnerability to humiliation, a dark shadow cast by Pride.

Mrs. Harrison also consistently rationalizes her desires, telling Lathom, “I can’t believe it was sin—no one could commit a sin and be so happy. Sin doesn’t exist, the conventional kind of sin, I mean—only lovingness and unlovingness—people like you and me, and people like him [Mr. Harrison].”21 The creeping dehumanization of her husband in this passage is found elsewhere in even more alarming proportions: “What right have the useless people to get in the way of love and youth?[…] Get rid of the ugly and sick and weak and worn-out things, and let youth and love and happiness have their chance.”22 And after Mr. Harrison dies, Mrs. Harrison coolly dismisses anyone who would disagree with her, “Of course, narrow-minded people might think our love itself was wicked—but one can’t help loving, can one, darling?”23

But Mrs. Harrison’s Sins do not function alone; they act and react with the Sins of those who are near, like chemical compounds, a central theme of this novel’s scientific aspects. We learn through Agatha Milsom that Mr. Harrison, while living, is very comfortable in terms of his finances, yet he still chooses to let the top floor of his house for additional income. While the Sins at work in Mrs. Harrison are predominantly Pride and Lust, covetousness and also Wrath, Envy, and Pride pursue Mr. Harrison.24 Sayers’s description of Wrath, in fact, from “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” fits Mr. Harrison very well: an “ugly form of possession” that “cloaks itself under a zeal for efficiency or a lofty resolution to expose scandals.”8 Mr. Harrison may speak very well of his wife to others, but the flip side of that coin is that he is possessive of her, always trying to catch her out, accusing her early on, for instance, of staying out late to speak with male friends. The combined results between the two characters are on display: surly remarks, marital bickering, mutual discontent, and a chance for their Sins to mushroom into greater proportions. 

Sayers proves herself to be very good at portraying the dangerous combinations of Sins and delineating what they might produce in behavior. As we see from multiple perspectives, patterns begin to appear. Pride facilitates and intensifies other Sins. The deep-seated egoism of both Lathom and Mrs. Harrison make them more susceptible to Lust.25 Pride prevents Mr. Harrison from seeing either Envy or Wrath at work in his relationship with his wife.26 In Agatha Milsom, we have a combination of Pride (as petty selfishness), Wrath (as righteous anger), and Lust (as unfulfilled physical desire).27 Munting suffers from the early stages of Pride; his letters to his fiancée show his mixed impetuosity and insecurity. His frequently cynical air also makes him vulnerable to Sloth.28 No Sin is static, and each Sin not only can develop into an increasingly concentrated form of itself but can empower other Sins. They spawn into wicked acts, poisonous and lethal. We begin to learn to detect them. 


Dorothy Sayers, c. 1920. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

No Nice, Neat Solutions

I was raised in a home replete with Golden Age mystery novels—ranging from Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh to Sayers. My family read and reread these books. The low bookcase against the far wall of an upstairs bedroom was jam-packed with this collection of, mostly, yellowing and dog-eared paperbacks. Like other family members, I mainly read Sayers’s detective fiction for her famous character Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy aristocratic amateur sleuth and bibliophile full of charm, deductive reasoning skills, and apt, well-timed literary quotations. Wimsey has much of Sayers’s own audacity and dry humor. A humanist and disbeliever in God as well as a victim of shell shock from the war, Wimsey serves many of Sayers’s purposes for detective fiction. His character deepens as the novels wear on, mirroring Sayers’s own development of her spiritual concerns at the time of writing as well as accentuating her determination to transform the detective genre into the kind of serious literary reading that could entertain while deftly handling a wide range of relevant social and cultural issues.29 

I once thought I loved Sayers’s work so well for the wit and wisdom of this single character. Now I realize this is incorrect. The Documents in the Case brings home the fact that Sayers’s detective fiction—and all of her writing related to her detective fiction—is invigorated by its humanist bent, with or without Wimsey. (Sayers, I’m certain, would have appreciated the pun.) Throughout her involvement in writing reviews of detective fiction, compiling anthologies, arranging lengthy remarks on real-life cases, and composing her own fiction, Sayers poured forth her concern to fashion “humanized” detective novels. Detective fiction in the interwar period, as an emerging genre concomitant with much of modernism’s highbrow literary art, sat at a tricky, but potentially fruitful, crossroads between upper- and lower-class readerships as well as scientific and more humanistic views. Detective fiction, like modernism, was a reaction to the devastation of the First World War, in part a way for readers to navigate scenes of death and violence that the trauma of loss inflicted by the war had otherwise made intolerable.30 The genre often encased such scenes in frameworks of cool, detached detection, making the reading of a detective novel much like the solving of a crossword or jigsaw puzzle. It became a form of escapism. But Sayers had something to say about this, writing in 1941 that “people are getting rather too much of the detective story attitude to life—a sort of assumption that there is a nice, neat solution for every imaginable problem. I am now spending my time telling people that real difficulties, such as sin, death and the night-bomber, can’t be ‘solved’ like crosswords!”31

Sayers wanted to raise detective fiction from a lowbrow or middlebrow literary strata into high art, but not at the expense of its less-well-educated readers. Other writers at the time were involved in this project, but often with modernism’s highbrow motives. Sayers stood apart because she wanted the genre to be kept inclusive, to remain popular and able to serve its readers by bettering them—humanizing them—no matter their stature or station. If detective fiction alienated its lower-class readerships in its ascent to highbrow literature, then in Sayers’s estimation, it had failed. Sayers put it this way in 1930: the mystery story, as it became “more subtle, literary and desiccated in manner,” was simultaneously “in great danger of losing touch with the common man, and becoming a caviar banquet for the cultured.” To really succeed, the genre needed to broaden itself, to eschew escapism, and to combine “fine writing with common feeling.”32

In 1935, Sayers penned a review of G. K. Chesterton’s The Scandal of Father Brown for the Sunday Times. Within it, she praises his “very great courage” in choosing to broaden the horizons of the detective story “by making it deal with real death and real wickedness and real, that is to say, divine judgement.”33 Her language on this point turns on the difference between human and marionette: “Are the crimes to be real sins, or are they to be the mere gestures of animated puppets? Are we to shed blood or only sawdust?… And is the detective to figure only as the arm of the law or as the hand of God?”34 In describing her rationale for her own practice, Sayers writes along similar lines that without imbuing detective narrative with real human depth, “the reader gets tired after a time of a literature without bowels.”35 Sayers attaches the acknowledgment of Sins and the complexities of morality to the visceral, bodily reality we all live and experience.

Sayers did her part to coax detective fiction in the right direction. Hers was a straight path between letting detective fiction fall into the category of “subliterary” on the one side and seeing it disappear into the clouds of high art on the other. And indeed, Sayers’s inclusion of the Seven Deadly Sins in her fiction figured centrally as part of her humanizing project for the genre. To put it baldly, Sayers wanted the Seven Deadly Sins taken seriously, as moral problem and human element. Her familiarity with the Seven Deadly Sins fleshed out her psychological profiles of characters, deepened her understanding of motives—nuanced—both good and bad. It also meant she could weave her (less popular) views of Sin in modern times into the storytelling of a popular medium. Far from agreeing with the principal opinion of the day, that evil is a result of heredity and environment, Sayers called Sin our “bad workmanship,” something that comes from within and manifests in life whenever a person pursues his or her own plan or purpose rather than (seeking to know) God’s.36 For Sayers, to bring the theological and moral to her writing in a popular genre was to draw out its potential for nuance of character and complexity of circumstance.37

Perhaps Sayers’s task, ultimately, was to indicate that the “mystery” continues with every step we take away from the page. She elaborates in her own words:

It is significant that readers should so often welcome the detective-story as a way of escape from the problems of existence. It “takes their minds off their troubles”. Of course it does;[…] The beautiful finality with which the curtain rings down on the close of the investigation conceals from the reader that no part of the “problem” has been solved except the part which was presented in problematic terms. The murderer’s motive has been detected, but nothing at all has been said about the healing of his murderous soul. Indeed, a major technical necessity of the writing is to prevent this aspect of the matter from ever presenting itself to the reader’s mind.38

Rather than adhere to this technical necessity, Sayers dared to construe the genre in new, broader terms. Corresponding with E. C. Bentley in 1936, a fellow crime author she admired so well, Sayers makes an important statement to do with the great potential—moral, social, theological—of detective fiction overall. She writes, “Yours are BOOKS, full of humanity and the Humanities, touching life on all sides[…] With you to help us, we should not have taken half so long to get the detective novel recognized as literature.”39 Her comment is half-praise, half-chide, indicating that she wishes Bentley had written more throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, but it also reveals exactly what Sayers knew would breathe life into detective fiction all along: “humanity and the Humanities, touching life on all sides.” For Sayers, an understanding of the Seven Deadly Sins amounted to a heightened understanding of humanity, of Self and Other, and of our collective limitations.40 And so, whenever we read her detective fiction, we are engaged in a pastime that goes beyond entertainment or escape. We are tasked with detective work that extends beyond the final page. We are stimulated into a heightened awareness of humanity and the Humanities, invited to touch life on all sides.