Monday, August 06, 2007

Inoffensive Wimsey

This may be a testament to the staggering lengths of time it takes for me to get around to stuff: I just recently finished the DL Sayers novel my sister gave me for Christmas. It had been sitting on my shelf for lo these many months, and I finally cracked it open this summer.

Shame, because it would have been a really good and Christmasy read, and it suffered, I think, for having been read in July.

However ... we must be brave and carry on.

The idea of reading The Nine Tailors was exciting to me because Sayers is one of these canonical authors I've wanted to read for ages, so I was really looking forward to this Golden Age mystery (even though I've been disappointed by this branch of the genre in the past ... but this was Sayers after all, I reasoned, not The Crime at Black Dudley).

The novel itself was less than exciting, initially, and I was prepared to write off all English Golden Age mysteries indefinitely. The first fifty pages were just interminable description of village life quaintness, bell-ringing vicars, and English countryfolk. Then as a mystery began (slowly) to unfold, I started to feel a little better. Granted, it was the tamest mystery of all time (a stolen emerald necklace, yawn) but then finally, FINALLY, they FOUND a CORPSE! Thank god.

Things really picked up after the inquest. Villagers began to gossip and accuse, and act downright suspicious, mysterious papers found on the corpse take Lord Peter Wimsey (our gentleman detective) to France, and the corpse's true identity emerges, but they still can't figure out how he died. The answer can only be found by listening to the mysterious bells!

All in all it was a decent story, with some hilarious asides (like a two-page rant about how the French have terrible handwriting) and Wimsey was an amusing character with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor but I can see how this novel would be neither universally loved nor universally reviled. I get the feeling that those who like this type of writing like it a lot, those who don't will simply feel bored and restless. I can appreciate certain qualities in her story but not in her method of story-telling (awfully long and dry and descriptive and sprawling -- I'd have found this story marvelous if she'd lopped off about 100 ages of description) or in her language (stiff!) or in her themes (rather mild for my taste). I won't rush out to read more Sayers the way I did with Tey after the Franchise Affair, or Rendell after No Night Is Too Long. I feel coolly toward Sayers, rather like I do with PD James.

I'll leave you with Edmund Wilson's criticism: "I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters.... I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well... but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level."

So there. Ladies, you can feel comfortable giving this book to your Nana; she won't be offended by any of it, and she'll learn a lot about bells.


MaryLynn B said...

It has been some time since I read Sayers work but I don't even recall that one (and my car is named Wimsey so clearly I'm a fan). If you want to give her another go I'd advise "Gaudy Night" which features Wimsey and Harriet Vane, who I adore as a character.

Though, hrm, Gaudy Night sort of spoils them. You can go back to Strong Poison if you really don't want them ruined. Gaudy Night is just sort of a nice read.

Spinster said...

Thanks! I've often thought of giving Gaudy Night a go just because I like the name, but how does it "spoil it"? Does it give something key away?

I'll probably read it anyway, and hopefully Strong Poison too. I hate to write off a series or author on the strength (or weakness) of just one book. I didn't like The Daughter of Time so I didn't read Josephine Tey for years; then I read The Franchise Affair and was absolutely blown away. So you never know!

MaryLynn B said...

Basically, Harriet is set up as a female spoil for Wimsey in Strong Poison and Gaudy Night is largely about the culmination of that relationship (sort of). They're so delightful together it might be worth working through SPoison and Have His Carcase beforehand just to heighten the anticipation.

Man, now I want to go back and read them too. I haven't read any of them in ages - Tey either!

Spinster Aunt said...

Oooh, sounds interesting!

I'll definitely try to check them out.