Dorothy L. Sayers belongs to that loose association of writers known as the “Oxford Christians,” along with men like C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The four are variously similar: all were Christians, all medievalists, and all wrote popular fiction. But while the fantasies of Lewis, Williams, and especially Tolkien have caught both popular and scholarly attention, Sayers’s fiction seems to have generated less excitement.
This may be explained in part by the kind of fiction it is. Beside the ambrosia of fantasy, detective stories may seem as prosaic as porridge. Instead of cosmic voyages or wars in (and over) heaven, Sayers wrote witty, blood-and-logic murder mysteries; instead of Frodo Baggins or the Pendragon, she chose as hero a British nobleman named Peter Wimsey. The novels are classics of their type, disarming, swiftly plotted, and ingenious. But some of the magic of the “spiritual shocker” is plainly lacking.
Nevertheless, a sensitive reader may feel there is a deeper and less predictable dimension in these novels. As Roderick Jellema has shown with his anthology of her work, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, Sayers was a blunt and literate champion of Christian orthodoxy. Now, the detective novels are not in any explicit sense religious. Neither Wimsey nor his closest associates are Christians. But Wimsey’s experiences with guilt and innocence, with malice and love, lead him in the direction of profound personal change; this change, as it develops in successive novels, recalls the psychological pattern of Christian conversion.
In an essay on Dante entitled “… And Telling You a Story” (1947), Sayers described Dante’s conversion in these terms:
One has only to compare the Dante of the Convivio with the Dante of the Vita and the Commedia to see what it was that had happened to him and then unhappened. The Dante of the Convivio has everything that the other Dante has—the great intellect, the great curiosity, the great poetry, the great piety, even—but without humility and without charity. The sin is not primarily girls or anybody’s system of philosophy; it is simply the thing known as hardness of heart … not “a” sin, but simply sin.
Dante’s conversion produces a radical self-revaluation:
He stopped justifying himself and admitted that he was a fool and a miserable sinner. He took down the defensive barrier with which he had shut the “blessed and glorious” Beatrice out of the Convivio. He … accepted [a] dreaming, enthusiastic, gawky, and slightly absurd young man as his inalienable self.
Now plainly this is no theological definition; it is more a description of how conversion feels. It does not answer “What must I do to be saved?” but rather “What would happen to me if I were?” The thawing of the frost in his heart, the sudden access of charity, humility, and self-knowledge, could only follow Dante’s recognizing his own guilt, pride, and vulnerability. He learns to accept himself; and he learns properly to love Beatrice—which is to say, he stops defending himself from her love and the truth she offers him.
Christian or not, Peter Wimsey faces a similar change. He too recognizes his inadequacy and guilt, and finds refuge, finally, in love freely accepted. How Sayers arranges for this “conversion” within the formulas of a detective novel is both surprising and instructive.
First, Sayers clearly perceived the opportunities for ethical investigation built into her genre. Every mystery concerns itself with the effort to detect guilty realities beneath innocent appearances. Hence the criminal’s recurrent “perfect alibi.” Hence the detective’s encounter with guilt and its practical and spiritual consequences: Who did it, how, and why? Can he prosecute, punish, or absolve with justice? How is he to judge the criminal he tracks down?
Sayers heightens these ethical overtones by placing her crimes in retired or sheltered settings: a country village, a resort, an exclusive London club, or even Oxford, the haven of intellect and decorum. “Stir up the mud of the village pond,” says Peter bitterly, “and the stink will surprise you.” However intensely the inhabitants of these artificial Edens may want to hush it up—murder and suicide are only “unpleasantnesses” at the Bellona Club—the obsessive violence of human nature may surface anywhere.
Some of the Wimsey stories end on an upswing of triumph or relief. Less predictably, others end in desolation, weariness, or disgust, with Wimsey facing the grim consequences of crime both for its victims and for himself. “On paper,” a mystery may seem intricate, intriguing, like a picture puzzle. In reality, an unsolved crime only initiates a grinding round of work, doubt, emotional shock, and frustration. Neither wit nor wealth nor professional “security” can exempt the sleuth from sharing the guilt and tragedy of the people around him.
Enter Wimsey of Balliol and Picadilly. Rich, single, cultivated, clever, he “owns the kingdoms of this world.” Comfort and security are given: he takes to crime-solving for excitement, mental stimulation, to escape routine. His betters and relations disapprove: they think his hobby a dilettante’s game, unworthy of a peer—bad form as well as bad press. But Peter’s vacillation between the roles of dilettante and detective helps to define the lesson he must learn.
For Peter to enjoy his hobby, he must try to minimize the ugly or tragic aspects of a detective’s work. His worldly sophistication is therefore bent toward maintaining a sort of innocence, like the apparent innocence of a country village. His nonchalance, his dandified wardrobe and flippant charm, hide a basic fear of human involvement.
The Christian convert must “open up” and let the knowledge of himself and of God invade his self-righteousness. Wimsey must open up and allow the ugly reality of human motives to destroy his witty detachment. The murders will not stay “on paper”; they pull him into involvement, into knowledge of others and of himself.
Twice, for example, he becomes the cause of crime. In Unnatural Death, he advertises for information on the guess that a murder has been committed. The ad’s only result is the immediate death of a girl who could have answered it. But this theme is most completely realized in The Nine Tailors. The venerable art of bell-ringing, practiced in English churches for centuries, provides this book with a wonderful esoteric vocabulary and a brilliant gimmick for murder. But the book is actually “about” innocence and guilt.
For Sayers turns the typical detective plot inside out. All suspects turn out to be—technically—innocent; the true murderers are a group of innocent bystanders who sincerely try to put the blame on someone else—Wimsey is one of these. By novel’s end, all characters involved are either physically innocent and guilty by motive, or physically guilty and innocent by ignorance. All are innocent, all are guilty. And the “change,” as Sayers would say, “is taken out of” Peter Wimsey, the stirrer-up of mud, the passerby who finds he is a death-herald as well. Not only does he solve the crime—he also shares the guilt.
This accounts for half the conversion archetype with which we began, the half about guilt and self-knowledge. But both Dante and Peter Wimsey go on from here. In four of the eleven Wimsey novels, Peter defends, woos, and finally marries Harriet Vane. The courtship is a long one—six years of repeated proposals and patient good will—but Peter and Harriet are complex, reticent people. The painful growth by which they come to understand each other, to accept their mutual dependence and become open to the consequences of love, parallels the second step of conversion—the thawing of the hard heart by which Dante came to self-acceptance and self-surrender.
In Strong Poison, Peter meets Harriet and collapses at once—love at first sight. But Harriet, severely hurt by one traumatic affair, wants to be left alone, free of emotional obligations. She offers Peter gratitude, in reasonable proportion, but not love.
To say that Harriet has suffered, however, does not fully account for her unwillingness to give in. Nor is this simply shyness. There is in her independence something of what Thomas Merton calls the “pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate … will to reject disinterested love for us [as it seems] to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.” What Harriet resists is the implication that she needs Peter. She is desperately anxious to have no debts, to prove she can “make it on her own,” with pride intact. She can’t, of course; neither can Peter; nor can anyone else.
In Gaudy Night Harriet must come to grips with her dilemma. The “artificial Eden” here is Oxford: Harriet, an alumna of a women’s college, returns for a reunion and finds herself the object of a campaign of threats and obscenity. With Harriet’s help, Peter traps the poltergeist; but as the detective plot unfolds against a background of leisurely conversation, Oxford becomes a metaphor for Harriet’s own stubborn self-possessiveness. In essence, Peter offers her a choice between Oxford and himself: between proud independence and love, between an easy escape and a difficult involvement, between the kingdom of this world and a bet on the next.
To offer such a choice, Peter must lay aside his own possessiveness and become vulnerable; but it is only when Harriet chooses in his favor that his action can be completed. Like Dante, the couple must learn to be loved as well as to love. Their self-erected barriers against fallibility—the armor of wit and material security with which they try to defend themselves—must be abandoned. They must accept the awkward humility of being fully human.
This self-surrender is completed by their discovery of the strength and confidence of love—human love, not divine. For the grace in these stories is strictly terrestrial. One of the favorite ideas of the Oxford Christians was that human love is a reflection, at least, of divine love. But Wimsey does not become a Christian; he becomes, rather, a more complete human being, by a conversion whose terms recall, though they do not duplicate, those of a religious conversion.
Nevertheless, one might say that the novels close with an eucatastrophe, the experience of loss and gain in which a man who risks everything may have that everything restored, with the added light of joy. Peter Wimsey plays the delicate games of detection with flair and success; but the lessons he learns are the Christian ones of guilt, self-surrender, and redemption by love. Lionel Basney is associate professor of English, Houghton College, Houghton, New York.
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