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First Novels

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For the last several months, I’ve been reading and rereading–almost obsessively–Golden Age detective novels. 

I’m not entirely sure what this is about.  Maybe I’m just trying to recapture what it was that made me love detective novels to begin with.  “Murder mysteries” is what they were called when I was younger, and “murder mysteries” is what I think of them still.

I’ve been aided in this endeavor by good friends who have sent huge packaged of books, replacing many of the ones I had that are now out of print or very expensive to get.   

This week I’ve been looking at two in particular, mostly because they surprised me, especially taken as a pair.

The books are Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.

Before I go on to what I want to go on to, I should note a couple of things.

These two novels are both first novels, both in the absolute sense–the first ever written by these two authors–and in the relative sense–the first appearance of their most famous detectives. 

For Christie, that detective was Hercule Poirot.  For Sayers, it was Lord Peter Wimsey.

These two novels were also written and published very close together in time–The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and Whose Body? in 1923.

And there are, of course, other similarities.  Both women were British.  Both used Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes as her template. 

The similarities are important because they rule out many of the usual explanations for why two novels might be dissimilar.  Christie and Sayers were both writing for the same audience.  They were writing at a similar time in their own lives and in the history of the world.  They were coming out of the same tradition.  They were writing their first novels.  They were being published at the same time.

And their books, even so, could not be less alike.

Let me start out by saying that I have always thought of myself as really loveing the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, and I am willing to say, even now, that Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors are two of the best works of fiction in the detective genre. 

The first Sayers novel I ever read was Murder Must Advertise, and I remember loving it. I think it’s weaker now, but I’m older, and I’ve read and written a lot more.

The problem with Whose Body is not that it is genuinely and truly awful–although it is that–but that it is genuinely and truly awful in ways it did not need to be. 

Everything that is wrong with this book is wrong because of a decision made by Dorothy L. Sayers herself, and everything that is wrong is not wrong with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

There is, to begin with, the fact that there is no establishing information of any kind at the beginning of this book.  We are plunged into the plot not just in media res but in media life.  Lord Peter is already well known to Scotland Yard and welcomed to help investigate even with his amateur status.  We don’t know why, or under what circumstances, he came to be so.  There is a body in a bath, stark naked except for a pair of pince-nez.  We not only don’t know who he is–that’s the point of the title, after all–but anything about any of the circumstances surrounding either the death or the people in whose home the death was discovered. 

We are introduced to a pack of characters without being given any background on any of them.  What very little characterization there is consists of throwaway stereotyped lines about stupid police detectives and consceintious Jewish financiers.

As for Lord Peter himself, he is, almost entirely, a caricature.   The endless and unrelieved stress on his bizarre mannerisms, the attempts to reproduce his dialect in speech, brought me to a point where, around page 30, I was ready to shoot him.   The constant dropping of the final g in words like “thinking” and “doing” were enough to make me think that Cromwell hadn’t been entirely wrong to want to get rid of the aristocracy.

And then there’s the matter of that aristocracy.  Aristocrats litter this book, all drawn with the broad lines of music hall comedy, stupid and vapid young men idling away at clubs if they can and being miserable about jobs if they have them.  The aristocratic set could have been done by Monty Python as part of one of those sketches about upper class twits.

Through all this, it’s perfectly possible to see how Sayers has attempted to imitate Conan Doyle.  We are first introduced to Holmes in media life, too.  He is already a consulting detective with something of a reputation among the police.  Holmes works where Sayers doesn’t, I think, because Watson provides the set up and background that makes the reader feel the story has some kind of foundation, rather than being sort of shot out of a cannon without warning.  Watson explains things to his readers because he needed to have them explained to himself.  Sayers has provided no Watson, and plot elements and clues come flying out of nowhere at random intervals.

It’s also easy to see how Christie was imitating Conan Doyle.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles is written in first person from the point of view of Poirot’s own Watson, the amiable idiot known as Captain Hastings.

In this book, however, there is due time taken to introduce first Hastings himself and then the people with whom he is staying, the people among whom the murder will occur.   What’s more, Poirot’s career and reputation are explained–briefly, but explained–before we ever see him, and well before he ever finds himself involved in helping to solve the crime.

And although Poirot has some elements of caricature, he is not written so broadly as to be unbelievable, and the other characters are not caricatures at all.  Even Hastings isn’t a caricature. 

It feels to me, reading them side by side, as if the two women approached their first books with entirely different attitudes and intentions.

It feels to me that Sayers set out to write a murder mystery, but Christie set out to write a novel.

If I’ve just punched all your buttons, stop.  I’m not talking about “the novel” as a superior form to “genre.”  Christie’s first book is very much “genre.”

Many genre novels are very good novels as well as being very good examples of their genre.

But Whose Body? isn’t a genre novel.  It’s an intellectual exercise, a sort of elongated crossword puzzle, in which the usual strengths of fiction–for characterization, setting, even for plot as more than just a string of events–are almost entirely absent.

I wonder how much of this difference can be laid at the feet of the one really striking difference between the two women.  Agatha Christie left school at the end of what Americans would call “high school” and married and settled down.  Dorothy L. Sayers became part of the first contingent of female students ever allowed to study at Oxford and eventually one of the first women ever to receive an Oxford degree.

University training being what it is, maybe the difference is that Agatha Christie assumed that in writing a detective story she was wring a novel, and that Sayers assumed that in writing a dectective story she wasn’t.

Obviously, of course, somewhere down the line, Sayers must have changed her mind.  Gaudy Night is certainly a novel, and not just an exercise in creating a puzzle.

The nature of the two books, though, explains why I have always kept a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles around the house–and replaced it every time it fell apart, as it did this morning–but I had to be reintroduced to Whose Body by a friend.

I’m going to go put on some harpsichords.

Written by janeh

July 31st, 2011 at 9:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'First Novels'

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  1. I’d toss a third first mystery novel in the mix. When you read WHOSE BODY? and SS Van Dine’s THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1926), you begin to understand exactly what Raymond Chandler was talking about in “The Simple Art of Murder.” As you say, they’e “intellectual crossword puzzles.” And of course it’s van Dine who wrote those “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” which would have restricted them to being exactly that.

    Sayers commented later that she had set out to write something less like a murder mystery and more like a novel, and looking back–from STRONG POISON–was struck by how little progress she had made. I think more truthfully, she started out to throw off a murder mystery as an income supplement, but taste and habits of reading asserted themselves: she couldn’t write as little or as poorly as she had meant to.
    Even by the end of WHOSE BODY? Lord Peter is becoming a real person. We know the Dowager Dutchess, and we know a little of Lord Peter’s war service–and Bunter’s. Eventually, there will be an entire family of real people, with births, upbringings, educations and experiences anchoring them to a time and place, while Poirot and Miss Marple will float freely like Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale–perhaps dealing with real people, but not quite real themselves. Christie begins as good as she will ever be. So does van Dine. Sayers will get better.

    Begining in medias res is defensible, I think. Note that, while Philo Vance and Lord Peter strongly resemble one another, van Dine goes on forever on background. I was ready to shoot someone before he was done. Of course I come out of science fiction and fantasy, where you can’t possibly have everything explained first. The trick is knowing what must be explained at the time, what can be filled in later and what can be left to the reader’s imagination. I’d have said Sayers had it right, though it isn’t the only way.

    Note Sayers observed later of MURDER MUST ADVERTISE that she wanted to contrast the illusory worlds of advertising and Bright Young Things, but failed because while she understood advertising well enough, she really didn’t know the world of Bright Young Things. Perhaps excessively self-critical, but she identified her own weak point. Would that more of us did.


    31 Jul 11 at 11:45 am

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