I must admit that the detective novel isn’t my favorite genre. I happen to enjoy a good mystery now and again, but for me, most detective novels lack the rich character development that I desire in a story. But one detective story writer, in particular, consistently creates complex, memorable characters, as well writes with a very elegant style. She’s also brilliant and infuses her stories with her encyclopedic knowledge. I mean, she translated Dante’s Divine Comedy from the original Italian (it’s my personal favorite translation). That says something about this woman’s intellectual capacity.
Dorothy Sayers wrote 14 detective novels with the gallant and talented Lord Peter Wimsey as the lead sleuth. My readers who are C.S. Lewis fans might be familiar with Dorothy Sayers because C.S. Lewis was himself a fan of Sayers’ work, and they were also personal friends. Sayers wrote her detective novels in the 1920s and 30s, over 30 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world.
Sayers was a believer in Jesus Christ, and as a member of the Church of England, she held very orthodox Anglican beliefs. Late in her life, the church offered her a Doctorate in Divinity, due to her contributions to the faith in her writing. But interestingly, she declined it. Although she wasn’t a member of Lewis’ “Inklings” (because she was a woman), she would occasionally speak at his Socratic Club in defense of the Christian faith, and she would join Lewis in contributing to BBC radio productions about Christianity.
I recently read Sayer’s most famous mystery: The Nine Tailors. It’s my second time reading one of her novels, and I must say, they both exceed the quality of any piece of detective fiction I’ve read.
Knowing what I know about Sayer’s faith, I was a bit taken aback by the lack of overt Christianity in these books. Wimsey is no paragon of the faith, and the characters in the stories don’t strike me as Christian exemplars. But I also think that current Christian fiction has trained me to look for too simple and overt demonstrations of Christianity. A Christian writer doesn’t have to make overt references to their faith that include a salvation experience for a main character or a sermon on the need for salvation. Perhaps the overwhelming success of Sayer’s books in the secular market indicates how much she, like Lewis and Tolkien, understand that Christ can live in the details of a Christian’s writing as much as the overt references.
The Nine Tailors is far from a perfect book. In my opinion, Sayers is a little too obsessed with bells and their history and proper method of ringing. It takes a very long while for the story to get rolling, due to all the bell oriented exposition. But this story has an amazing portrayal of justice, that I really want to discuss but shouldn’t because any more details would give away too much (maybe this is why I don’t like mysteries that much…). Sayers also depicts mercy, and the love that exists in Christian community. One of the most memorable characters is the local church rector, who serves his parish as a faithful shepherd, with his own set of faults, nonetheless. Too many Christian books depict the pastor extraordinaire who looks very little like any pastors I know, who are humble, ordinary men trying to live up to God’s high calling.
Anybody else read any of Sayer’s works? I’d love to hear recommendations about any of her other mysteries, in addition to her essays or plays.