Review: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy Sayers

Tra-la, tra-la, I am jonesing so hard for Dorothy Sayers right now I don’t even know what to say about it. My clever-but-not-always-right friend tim stopped me from buying several other Dorothy Sayers mysteries or else it would be a Dorothy Sayers Festival all up in here. I want to read all her books. And then I want to travel to an alternate universe where she wrote more books than Agatha Christie, and read all those additional books. Many of them would feature Harriet Vane. Sigh.

In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, an old guy dies in the club on Armistice Day, at an unspecified time. This would all be fine, except that his wealthy sister also died very recently, and the inheritance depends on knowing exactly who died first. Wishing to avoid any further unpleasantness, the lawyer of the dead man’s sons asks Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate the matter.

Why I read the end: To find out who done it. Obviously.

Reviewing mysteries is hard! I think basically mysteries by the same author tend to go a certain way, and if you like the detective, and if you like the way the author writes mysteries, then hooray, you will generally like all their mysteries! I am awfully fond of Dorothy Sayers. I sometimes wonder if I would have liked Peter Wimsey as much if I’d spent all those books with him being all arrogant and know-it-all, before meeting Harriet. But, moot point! I met him and Harriet at the same time, he made Alice in Wonderland references and saved Harriet from hanging, and hence I like him. And I like Dorothy Sayers and her mysteries.

One reason I love Dorothy Sayers is that famous thing she said, that she was broke when she was writing her Peter Wimsey mysteries and she consoled herself for her poverty by giving Wimsey nice things. Oh, Dorothy Sayers. I am right there with you. When I run out of all my toiletries all at once and I have to spend half my weekly budget on replacing them, and then I can’t buy the pens I wanted or go see The Adjustment Bureau, I fetch out one of my stories and write nice things for my rich character to buy. Like an area rug! (I know, right? Dreamin’ big!)

Fin.

Y’all, I am in such a reviewing rut. I have books to review but when I sit down to write reviews, they come out really stupid. Including this one! Why am such a terrible book blogger? I think it is maybe because I’m having a little bit of a vacation hangover. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m a bad blogger! I will try to do better.

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, ed. Barbara Reynolds

This is the first volume of Dorothy Sayers’s letters, actually. It’s properly called, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1899 – 1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist.  I am displeased at having two colons in the title.   You know what was most satisfying about this book?  How when I got all through with it, I kept remembering bits of it and thinking, Darn, wish I’d marked that passage, and then glancing back through the book and finding that I had.  Hurrah for me!

Dorothy Sayers was an interesting lady, and this book covers the period of her life with which I am most familiar.  She goes to school, she goes to Oxford (before the women actually, you know, got degrees at the end), she works as a teacher, she works in publishing, she works in advertising, she finally settles down to being a writer.  I found these career difficulties rather soothing, as I am having a hard time of adulthood so far.  It is nice to know that someone whose writing I admire had the same difficulties.

Barbara Reynolds, the editor, also a Sayers biographer, does a brilliant job of selecting and editing the letters.  I expect most times when people produce volumes of letters, it’s for the sake of scholars.  I know that my Oscar Wilde letters book contains zillions of letters of no particular importance or significance to someone not researching him (and probably loads of people who are).  And I can see why people don’t do volumes of letters like this very often, for a more casual audience, because really, how much of a readership can they expect in that case?  But it’s lovely when they do it, and Dorothy Sayers was an excellent letter-writer.  These made me want to read a proper biography of Dorothy Sayers, and I shall as soon as I go to the library.

So this is the best Dorothy Sayers story I know so far.  Ready?  Okay.  Once upon a time she had an affair with a writer called John Cournos.  He sounds terrible.  “John was ‘nice’ enough Friday week in a general way, but I fear he has no sympathy with Lord Peter, being the kind of man who takes his writing seriously and spells Art with a capital A.”  Anyway she was madly in love with him and wanted to get married and have babies, but he kept saying he didn’t love her, she wasn’t interesting, and he  just wanted to get laid.  She refused to use contraception, and he refused to have sex without it, and what with one thing and another they broke it off.  And he made fun of her for writing detective stories.

(Do you know that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that says He laughed at all I dared to praise / And broke my heart, in little ways?  I love that bit.  I bet that is just how Dorothy Sayers felt.)

Anyway, she went off and had an affair with a guy she didn’t care much about, and although they did use contraception, she still got pregnant; and he went off and married a detective novelist and told her, essentially, that if she’d had sex with him he would have married her and it was a test and she failed.  Cad.  She had the baby in secret and fostered it with a cousin and never told her parents.  It’s not clear to me yet whether she ever told the baby; later on in his life, she and her husband (not the baby-daddy; a different person) “adopted” him, and he was told to regard her as his adopted mother.  Which must have been strange.

She never told her parents.  I mean, I think her life would have been easier if she had, but serious props to her secret-keeping ability.  She would write them letters that referenced the cousin, Ivy, who was keeping the baby, along with some other children, and even referenced the baby, without saying it was hers.  Behold:

I think [Ivy] would be sorry to give up the children and the girl would hate leaving her – though no doubt she will have to sometime.  The baby, I gather, can, if necessary, be disposed of, if time is given to make arrangements.

(But don’t worry.  Ivy sorted out her living arrangements and carried on fostering John Anthony.)

There are also a quantity of letters to John Cournos, written after she had the baby and he got married, where she tells him her secret and they apparently rehash their whole affair.  Terrible idea!  I wanted her to stop, as he had obviously won the break-up, but she carried on writing to him.  I can’t blame her, poor baby, with that enormous secret on her mind.  Eventually she fictionalized him as Philip Boyes in Strong Poison and poisoned him with arsenic, and I imagine it was tremendously satisfying.

He got revenge by fictionalizing their affair in one of his books, and talking all about all the stuff they did and quoting from her letters like a cad, but you will be pleased to hear, it was terribly dull and silly and only had the effect of making him look like a prat.  But at least he didn’t burn all her letters like some writers I could mention who didn’t want to look bad even though they are bad, yes Ted Hughes, I am talking to you (it was journals really, in Ted Hughes’ case).

It was interesting too, reading about her work on the Harriet Vane books, especially Gaudy Night.  It is fun reading about the process that created characters and books – I suppose because in spite of what Barthes says I am still intrigued by knowing what the author intended, especially here when she managed it so nicely.  Sayers sounded rather apologetic when she sent Gaudy Night to her publisher, saying that it wasn’t really one thing or another, but it had to be written.  It must have been a hell of a thing to get finished, and I felt triumphant on her behalf that it turned out so good.  And apparently nobody liked Harriet Vane!  I can’t imagine why.  Harriet Vane is utterly one of my favorite characters ever!  But here’s the evidence:

You are one of the very few people with intelligent sympathy for Lord Peter and his Harriet.  Most of them beg me not to let him marry ‘that horrid girl’.  They don’t understand the violent conflict underlying her obstinacy – I am glad you do.  There’s stuff in Harriet, but it isn’t the conventional heroine stuff, you see.  My only reason for holding her up is that the situation between her and Lord P. is psychologically so difficult that it really needs a whole book to examine and resolve.

And, on writing Gaudy Night (I sympathize!):

I think I have got over most of the technical snags in Gaudy Night now, but the writing is being horribly difficult.  Peter and Harriet are the world’s most awkward pair of lovers – both so touchy and afraid to commit themselves to anything but hints and allusions!

On the mysteries question:

I have also been annoyed (stupidly enough) by a lot of reviewers who observed the identity of the murder was obvious from the start (as indeed it is also in Unnatural Death and The Documents in the Case).  Personally, I feel that it is only when the identity of the murderer is obvious that the reader can really concentrate on the question (much the most interesting) How did he do it?

And why.  Sensible woman.  I can’t proceed to her next volume of letters until I’ve read some of the works referenced therein, her plays and Christian writing.  I love reading letters.  Do y’all have any suggestions of interesting letters I can read?  I’ve done Tolkien, I’m in the midst of Sayers right now, and of course I’ve done the lovely Browning letters.  Bless.

While I’m on letters, this is brilliant.  Van Gogh’s letters are all nicely digitized, in facsimile and in translation, and with useful notes as well as images of any pictures he references.  The Van Gogh Museum is made out of win.

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night.  I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one.  Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified.  (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro?  If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.)  I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.

Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her.  She receives several unpleasant  anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness.  Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her.  There are many hijinks.

Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel.  Oh how I love it.  It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life.  Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.

I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it.  Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF.  Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.

Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed.  They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her.  I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad.  It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.

In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange.  And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either.  I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery.  I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons.  This is the fun of mysteries to me.  The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.

Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.

How do you read mysteries?  Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me?  Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once?  If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer?  (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it?  At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)