Dorothy L. Sayers was (in the opinion of many) one of the greatest crime fiction writers of all time. She lifted the mystery novel out of the ranks of the mere intellectual puzzle, into the world of true literature.
Sayers was born in Oxford, England, in 1893. The daughter of an Anglican minister, in 1915 she graduated from Oxford with first class honours in modern languages. She published her first novel “Whose Body” in 1923, introducing her most famous character: Lord Peter Wimsey. She went on to write fourteen volumes of novels and short stories with Wimsey as the main protagonist, and various other novels and short stories. She was happy to collaborate with other authors, and wrote several novels that way.
Though Sayers is most famous for her detective fiction, she wrote works in other genres. She translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, and wrote essays and papers on the Anglican faith, on women’s place in society, and on writing in general.
Dorothy L. Sayers was an eccentric and very complex woman. Well educated, she found no career that she was suited to, and worked as a copywriter for an advertising firm for 8 years, before she was able to exist on royalties from her novels. She dressed oddly, and was given to speaking her mind and behaving however she wished, regardless of appearances. She was insistent that all publications should refer to her as Dorothy L. Sayers, and grew furious when the “L” was omitted.
In 1926 she married Arthur Fleming, a man somewhat stricken by his war experiences, and cared for him unremittingly until his death. Kind, with a sense of humour and reams of scholarship – Dorothy Sayers did her readers the compliment of assuming they had the same knowledge she did. Her characters use snippets of Arabic, German and various other languages, as well as reams of French, which are very rarely translated.
In 1936 Sayers was introduced to dramatic writing, and one of her last Lord Peter books was in fact originally written for the stage. She wrote also for radio, and her modernization of the story of Christ “The Man Born to be King” caused consternation when it was first broadcast in 1941, as it placed Jesus in a modern setting, speaking everyday English.
I personally consider one of Sayers’ greatest triumphs to be the way she remodelled her hero, Lord Peter. Her earlier Wimsey books portray him as a silly ass-about-town, a Bertie Wooster type, who drops his g’s and says “don’tcherknow” a lot. He then evolves, until with her last Lord Peter novels he is a passionate, three-dimensional and incredibly deep character. Sayers smooths over the transition, by making it appear that the Bertie Wooster mannerisms were merely a façade, adopted to aid his detection efforts. So assuredly does she present this makeover, the reader is almost convinced that she meant it from the start.
Dorothy L. Sayers died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1957. She left several works unfinished: a friend completed her translation of Dante’s Paradiso, and in 1998 the last Lord Peter novel was published – completed from Sayers’ notes by Jill Paton Walsh.
Sayers wrote with humour, with passion and an unremitting eye to detail and accuracy. Her novels are a joy to read, her heroes and heroines appropriately engaging, her villains often spine-chilling in their wickedness. I can wholeheartedly recommend her works to any fan of the murder-mystery genre.
Sayer’s novels and collections include:
Acknowledgements: Introduction by Janet Hitchman from “Striding Folly” by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1972. http://www.sayers.org.uk/dorothy.html, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/19.html