Dorothy Sayers identified herself as a writer from a young age. As an early twenty-something, she published two volumes of poetry.3 Yet it was prose that ultimately paid her bills. Her first novel, Whose Body?, was a murder mystery introducing Lord Peter Wimsey, an elegant gentleman-detective. Peter is brought in to solve the case of a dead body, lying in a bathtub and wearing nothing to help with identification but a pince-nez. He does so with suavity and humor. After some initial hurdles, Whose Body? came to the attention of an American publisher, who brought Sayers to the attention of the British market from the long way around. A second novel, Clouds of Witnesses, followed shortly thereafter.
Sayers would go on to write twelve novels, numerous short stories, and even a few faux histories about her whimsical hero. Wimsey, in turn, transported her from surviving month to month to a stable-enough income to support herself and others. Yet it was a gradual process, and much of her time writing the Wimsey novels was at night, while she worked a day job at London advertising agency. In fact, the poorer she felt, the richer Lord Peter became. She even joked about the contrast.
When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.4
Lord Peter’s wealth and abilities eventually set Sayers on the international scene. By the time she published her last Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon (1935), she was a best-selling author in England and America. Possibly one of her greatest novels — a mystery about bell ringing titled The Nine Tailors (1934) — was hailed by the New York Post as “one of the best mysteries available in the world today.”5
Sayers’s novel writing ended two years before the start of World War II. Although she never gave up storytelling, she did not return to the genre of detective fiction. She would write later that too much time with detective problems limits our field of vision, tricking us into thinking that the problem of, say, unemployment is just as predictably soluble and finite as figuring out whose body lies in the bathtub.6 She would direct her energies to a field of writing better equipped to deal with the complexities of war: Christian drama.
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