Ever since the days of Edgar Allan Poe, and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, real life murder cases have fascinated detective writers. Poe’s tale fictionalised a puzzle about a woman called Mary Rogers, and over the years, “true crime” has supplied raw material for countless mystery novels and short stories.
Yet few major detective novelists explored real life cases with as much zest as Dorothy L. Sayers. Not only did she adapt cases for fictional purposes, she investigated a remarkable British murder mystery with the aplomb of a born sleuth. And, long after her death, her detective work was vindicated.
Why did true crime appeal so much to Sayers? George Orwell, of all people, probably put his finger on the answer, in his famous 1946 essay, Decline of the English Murder. He pointed out that, leaving aside the serial killings of Jack the Ripper, the most celebrated murder cases had a good deal in common. Sex was a motive in most, and the desire to maintain a respectable position in society often figured. Furthermore, most of the crimes were domestic – and these were the murders that fascinated Sayers and her fellow Golden Age writers.
A new generation of detective novelists had emerged, with different interests from those of Conan Doyle or G.K. Chesterton, men at their best with the short detective story, and quite often with crimes other than murder. Orwell pointed out that: “Since 1918… the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited.” And he went on to add: “Some of the Peter Wimsey stories, for instance, display an extremely morbid interest in corpses.” What would he have made of the 21st-century obsession with autopsies and CSI?
Times were changing in the Golden Age. Of course, writers often amused themselves by treating the detective novel as a game with the reader. Sayers enjoyed crosswords and codes and ciphers, and from time to time she featured them in her work. But she became increasingly excited by the literary potential of the detective novel.
References to classic murder cases are scattered throughout Sayers’ work. In her debut novel, Whose Body? not surprisingly given that a corpse is discovered in a bath, George Joseph Smith, the “Brides in the Bath” murderer, earns a mention. So does the 19th century Frenchman Dr Edmond de la Pommerais, who was guillotined for killing not only his mother-in-law but also his mistress. In Clouds of Witness, Charles Parker refers to the hanging of Earl Ferrers in 1760 when discussing with Wimsey the difficulties of the Duke of Denver, who is also tried for murder in the House of Lords. In Unnatural Death, Wimsey and Parker talk about killers – such as Smith, Palmer and Burke and Hare – who might have got away with murder had they not persisted in adding to their list of victims. Have His Carcase makes passing reference to the Patrick Mahon murder case. In the story “In the Teeth of the Evidence”, there is mention of the “blazing car” murder committed by Alfred Rouse in 1930.
Yet only when Sayers attempted a different, and more ambitious, kind of crime novel did true crime material become integral to her writing, rather than simply providing a few trimmings. She proposed the idea of collaboration to Dr Eustace Barton, who as Robert Eustace had co-authored a number of short stories with other writers. His specialism was to contribute medico-legal plot ideas, and he came up with an ambitious concept. The book was to deal with “the subtle difference between what is produced by life and that artificially produced by man”. And she recognised early on “that there must be a powerful love interest”, saying that she meant to make this part of the book “as modern and powerful as possible…we must do our best to make it as credible and convincing as up-to-date standards require.”
In her wonderful biography Dorothy L. Sayers; Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds’ account of this partnership of crime writers gives an extraordinary insight into the process of creating a classic detective novel. At first, Sayers and Barton focused on the method of murder and the means of detection, but before long she was focusing on the emotional side. She decided to have the victim “married to a sort of Edith Thompson woman”, in other words someone who encouraged her lover to remove her husband.
The murder for which Edith Thompson was hanged in 1923 was, in many ways, commonplace. There was no elaborate murder method, and little doubt about what had happened. The enduring fascination of the case lies in the character of Edith, as well as in what the trial shows about the nature of criminal justice in England at the time. Edith, married to the rather dull Percy Thompson, had an affair with a young man called Frederick Bywaters. She sent Bywaters a number of compromising letters, and claimed that she had ground a glass light bulb into shards and added them to Percy’s mashed potato in a bizarre attempt to kill him. She asked her lover to “do something desperate”, and his response was to attack the couple on their way home from the theatre and stab Percy to death. He quickly admitted his guilt to the police and said that Edith had nothing to do with the crime, but there were both charged with murder.
The prosecution case against Edith depended upon the evidence of her letters, but she performed dismally under cross-examination. The judge’s summing-up was hostile, and she was hanged. Yet although she was self-centred and arrogant, equally prey to fantasising and hysteria, there is little doubt that her “crime” in the eyes of society at the time was adultery rather than murder.
The book that Sayers and Barton produced, The Documents in the Case, was a daring experiment. Sayers had taken the bold decision to keep Wimsey out of the story, and this gave her the freedom to write something fresh, with psychological depth as well as “love interest”. She seized the chance to adopt the epistolary technique of which Wilkie Collins, whom she so admired, was a master. Given the importance of the correspondence in the Edith Thompson case, that approach was ideally suited to the material. Yet Sayers became dissatisfied with the book once she finished writing it. This is an occupational hazard for novelists, but surely she was too harsh on herself. The Documents in the Case is a bleak book, but it represents a milestone in the genre.
Sayers’ next novel, Strong Poison, became another landmark. Wimsey returned and met Harriet Vane. Their relationship developed steadily, despite a variety of setbacks, over the next few years and books. This set a pattern for detective series that broke decisively with the past. But it is less often recognised that, to achieve this change in approach, Sayers again drew on the facts of a real-life case. Sharyn McCrumb has pointed out, in an enjoyable essay for a festschrift edited by Alzina Stone Dale to celebrate Sayers’ centenary, that elements of Strong Poison derived from the Maybrick case.
Florence Maybrick was an American married to a wealthy cotton trader from Victorian Liverpool. James Maybrick had numerous affairs, and Florence retaliated by starting a relationship with a man called Brierley. When James died after being treated for acute dyspepsia, she fell under suspicion. She had bought flypaper containing arsenic, and a nurse reported having seen Florence tamper with a bottle of meat juice that tested positive for the same poison. Florence was tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to death, although on appeal, she was allowed to escape the gallows.
In Strong Poison, Harriet has a troubled relationship with her lover, Philip Boyes, and buys arsenic from a chemist’s while researching for a book. When Philip Boyes dies of arsenic poisoning, she is one of two suspects. But the other suspect seems to be out of the picture because he shared the dead man’s last meal without ill effects, suggesting that the on what they ate could not have been poisoned. So Harriet is accused of murder, before Wimsey rides to the rescue.
As Sharyn McCrumb points out: “the innocent woman, her lover, and the wicked arsenic-eater are all present, but their roles have been skewed to suit the author.” With experience, Sayers was becoming both thoughtful and selective in adapting aspects of real-life cases for use in her fiction. The secret of success lay in picking and choosing from the material available to achieve the desired effects.
Sayers’ interest in true crime was not confined to its usefulness for her fiction, and 1937 saw the publication of The Anatomy of Murder, which had the sub-title Famous crimes critically considered by members of the Detection Club. Sayers contributed a long essay entitled “The Murder of Julia Wallace”. The Wallace case was another classic Liverpool mystery, and Sayers’ study is masterly.
She quotes the judge’s summing-up, pointing out that question in a murder trial is solely whether the accused committed the crime, whereas the detective novelist wants to know whodunit, whether or not it was the accused. She argues that the Wallace case “provides for the detective novelist an unrivalled field for speculation.” As she points out, if he was guilty, “then he was the classic, contriver and alibi-monger that adorns the pages of a thousand mystery novels; and if he was innocent, then the real murderer was still more typically the classic villain of fiction.” In an era when Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, were exploring the potential of the multiple possible solutions to fictional crimes, Sayers makes the point that in the Wallace mystery, there was “no single incident which is not susceptible of at least two interpretations.”
William Herbert Wallace was an insurance agent who lived, apparently contentedly, with his wife Julia. Sayers speculates about whether Wallace’s reference to his wife’s “aimless chatter” implied that he was unhappy with her. But she did found nothing to make her think Wallace had been driven to madness and violence.
On a January evening in 1931, Wallace arrived at a meeting of the Liverpool Central Chess Club to be told that someone giving the name Qualtrough had telephoned for him, asking for a meeting the following evening at 25 Menlove Gardens East. He duly did so, only to find that Menlove Gardens East did not exist. When he finally returned home, he found his wife’s body in the front sitting room. Her skull had been battered, and blood splatter covered “the carpet.. the armchair by the fireplace… the violin-case lying on the seat of the chair, and… the wall behind.” Wallace was charged with her murder, convicted, and sentenced to death. On appeal, however, the conviction was quashed on the basis that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict. But Wallace did not have long to enjoy his freedom – he died a couple of years later of cancer of the kidneys.
For Sayers , character was crucial. There were no signs that Wallace was unbalanced, and the killing could not have come from a momentary frenzy, because it is plain it was carefully prepared in cold blood. Sayers felt that Wallace’s psychology was incompatible with his having committed the murder, but feared the mystery was “insoluble”. However, but research undertaken long after her death supports her analysis. The combined efforts of true crime expert Jonathan Goodman and journalist Roger Wilkes pointed the finger of guilt at Richard Gordon Parry, a junior employee at Wallace’s firm. Having got Wallace out of the way, Parry, it is alleged, burgled his house in the hope of stealing insurance money, only to be discovered by Julia, whom he then battered to death. Sayers was right to argue for Wallace’s innocence.
Sayers’ reputation rests above all on her detective novels. Yet she explored the puzzles of real-life mysteries with flair and insight. If she hadn’t abandoned crime for her other passions, she might easily have established herself as the outstanding true crime writer of her generation.
It’s quite a thought.