As president of the Detection Club, Dorothy L. Sayers led initiation rites featuring ceremonial garb, flickering candles and the spooky presence of Eric, a human skull.
With a flair for the dramatic, Sayers required British mystery writers to take an oath, including: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, or making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?”
New members promised “moderation” in — this is a partial list — the use of conspiracies, death-rays, ghosts and trapdoors, while “utterly and forever” avoiding “Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science.” And of course: “Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?”
The Detection Club was founded in 1930, with G.K. Chesterton as president. Sayers was a founding member and became its third president, followed by Agatha Christie.
Famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, Sayers’ career defied simple labels. As a young woman, she worked for the S.H. Benson advertising agency in London. Among Christians, she is best known as a colleague of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others in the Inklings writers circle in Oxford. Sayers wrote poetry, theological essays and theatrical works for the stage and BBC Radio. She was gifted in multiple languages and spent the final years of her life translating Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” into English.
Sayers is also known for a 1947 Oxford presentation — “The Lost Tools of Learning” — that has influenced generations of Classical education leaders in the United States, England and elsewhere. As a child, she was educated by her father, an Anglican vicar, who taught choral music and Latin at Oxford.
“Her parents gave her a classical education that allowed her to navigate her world, the tools to support herself. When she struggled and made mistakes, she was able to repent and get back on track,” said medieval scholar Lesley-Anne Williams, who lectured on “Dorothy Sayers: Advertising, Murder and Classical Education” during last week’s annual Inklings Festival at the ecumenical Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas.
“Her Christian faith played a role in everything she did, including her detective novels. She wanted to write fiction that was well done, in a style that she understood, respected and enjoyed. She always demonstrated great skill and craftsmanship.”
The Lord Peter Wimsey tales emerged during the golden age of British detective fiction, after World War I — the “war to end all wars” — had rocked the moral and cultural foundations of Europe. The popular, and profitable, mystery novels in this era offered complex, logical puzzle plots with detectives using evidence that included chemistry, medicine, physics and psychology.
Some British intellectuals were attempting to restore shaken public faith that good could defeat evil. Sayers, Chesterton and other masters of detective fiction truly believed that the great mysteries of their troubled age “were solvable,” said Williams, in one of her lectures.
“I don’t think that we’re in a golden age of mystery — now. I think part of that is, you have to have a belief that there is a truth that can be known,” she said. Thus, a yearning for absolutes could be “one of the reasons why people like mystery novels. They are kind of self-contained. You can trust the author to do certain things. … There is justice here and you have to have a belief in justice, you have to have a belief in truth to do that kind of mystery.”
In a 1957 eulogy for Sayers, Lewis stressed that his friend didn’t want to preach. She was striving to communicate clearly to a broader audience.
“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works,” wrote Lewis. “In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who has learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others. We who loved her may (among ourselves) largely admit that this attitude was sometimes almost comically emphatic. …
“As the detective stories do not stand quite apart, so neither do the explicitly religious works. She never sank the artist and entertainer in the evangelist.”