nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk) wrote,

Some thoughts on detective fiction, Dorothy L Sayers, and social class

"Some thoughts" rather than a thesis. This is a re-post of a message on the LordPeter Yahoo list in response a message that quoted an extract from "Talking About Detective Fiction" by P.D. James. Note, because of the immediate context in which this was originally written (discussion of Whose Body only, with some people on list whose views are on the right wing of the US political spectrum), and the consequent possibility of ructions, I have kept very strictly to answering the questions as posed, and because this is a quick post I have not re-edited for LJ. There's a lot more I could say on this and related issues, but not now. Still, I thought it might not be wholly uninteresting to some.

WHOS = "Whose Body"

BUSM - "Busman's Honeymoon"

To quote the OP of the message I was responding to:

> In the course of a chapter devoted to various common criticisms of the
> detective story, she cites the position "that the basic morality of
> the genre is strongly right-wing, upholding the right of the
> privileged against the dispossessed, in which working-class
> characters are little better than caricatures..."
> It seems to me that there are two criticisms conflated here --
> namely, the inherent political stance and the inaccurate portrayal of
> lower-class characters. I wonder how you think DLS fared on either
> of these points. Certainly there are very few lower-class persons in
> WHOS's dramatis personae. But among those few, are they /real/? And
> second, is WHOS a right-wing book?


[Cut for reference to the OP] PD James herself is a Conservative life peer, which no doubt informs her perspective.

I think that you are correct that two points are conflated in the way James words them in the quote. I don't think they are always separate, but they are not necessarily joined.

First, with regard to the inherent political stance. Here I feel that a lot of mystery fiction does tend to the small-c conservative side of things. Mystery fiction describes a situation in which life is disrupted by criminal - often violent means - and then by the actions of the detective, order is restored. This doesn't necessarily mean a big-C Conservative order. It's perfectly possible to imagine in a detective novel set in 1930s USSR in which a murder takes place, the detective solves it, and the order that is restored is a Communist one*. In the Wallander novels, social-democratic Sweden is restored (sometimes with caveats). But it is generally important in mystery fiction that the overall order is restored, the mystery solved, the murderer brought to justice, even if in the course of events some small disorders have been brought to light. This being the case, it is not surprising that given the politically Big-C Conservative stance of authors like Sayers herself, the order that is restored in their novels is a conservative - or indeed Conservative - one.**

What about WHOS? Well, I think we can agree that DLS is not a socialist and isn't writing left-wing polemic. The forces of law-and-order - with a little help from their aristocratic friend - catch the murderer, and the architect, suitably grateful, can go ahead with the Duke's Denver church roof. On the other hand, the order that is restored is the honour (not walked out on wife and business) of a self-made Jewish businessman. The genie remains out of the barrel, and the man with whom her father once had an 'understanding' does not get to marry a widowed Christine Levy nee Ford.

Concerning characters. I think there is little argument that with the exception of servants (by this period a dying class) DLS simply doesn't do urban working class characters. The working class formed the majority of the population, but you wouldn't know it from the Wimsey novels. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge - the only working class people it seems Sayers has ever really known well are servants. That said she notes in her letters that she scarcely knew any men until her mid-twenties, but wrote them simply by writing them as human. Perhaps it is a lack of interest, then. DLS did learn about bellringing, and had she wanted Lord Peter to come across a fascinating case in an urban working class environment she could have arranged it. The corpse of a Covent Garden barrow boy, perhaps, discovered on the way home from the opera. A bus conductor falling - poisoned? - down the steps. It seems clear that these weren't stories DLS was much interested in telling, even as sideshows. It is hard to envisage her writing Nicholas Blake's patriotic trade unionist lorry drivers of "The Smiler with the Knife".

Sayers _does_ write the rural working class, in NINE and BUSM, and can do so with respect and humanity even in a minor, often comic character like Puffett. Mrs Grimethorpe, not technically working-class but certainly a figure wholly without social power, is presented as a woman of dignity, honour, and courage, despite her awful circumstances. In the rural world, too, there are the servants we find in the city. In Mrs Ruddle her competency as cleaner is a redeeming feature. Mary Thoday was less satisfactory - and so are other women who seek to move out of service. The Gotobed sisters and BUSM's Polly, are explicitly characterised as a bit flighty, seeking the bright lights of the stocking counter and teashop rather than the wife-preparation role of the housemaid. In this DLS sets herself against the way the world was going, in which more and more women (and men) were rejecting domestic service in favour, among other things, of freedom and higher wages. Frank Crutchley is little more than a cliche, if a technically fairly well presented one. Returning to WHOS and the Levys, one might note that we meet Christine, but not Reuben, and Rachel will recur but only as mention, never in person. There's no reason that a person who was politically right-wing couldn't write complex, interesting and sympathetic portrayals of working class life, but Sayers is definitely not that author.

I shall finish with a final question: what of the workhouse man? Who is he? He has worked hard and lost his job (the economic situation, Freke implies), he is knocked down, and being unidentified is taken to the workhouse (not something one suspects would be the fate of even an unconscious unidentified Bunter), given medical treatment but then possibly murdered by Freke, has his body carved up, and is destined for a pauper's grave. No-one in the book gives consideration to who he might be as an individual, as a living human being, rather than a puzzle to be solved, or sympathises with this poor man who couldn't get work. He is ultimately only a device, for the murderer's game, for the author's plot. Might Lord Peter or the police have gone down to Chelsea, interview the tramps, tried to discover who this man was beyond a mystery corpse and told his family of his end? Who knows - but DLS isn't interested in telling us.

* If anyone can recommend such a book translated into English, I'd love to know.

** It is not impossible to write a detective novel in which order is not restored, or in which the restored order is depicted as negative. In James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels, Robicheaux's attempts to restore the moral order by catching the murderer frequently disrupt a social order in which it suits the authorities/others in charge for the murder to be forgotten, in a social order characterised by "the rich get away with it". Burke's books are not paeans to the power of justice, but rage against a profoundly unequal society.
Tags: dls, fandom
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