Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hangman’s Holiday: Dorothy L. Sayers

The re-issue of this collection of short stories by one who, the author introduction in the book claims, was the greatest detective novelist of the golden age (a claim that can be contested, perhaps successfully, considering one of Sayers’ contemporaries was a certain Dame Agatha Christie), proclaims loudly on the cover: Featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Lord Peter Wimsey was the famous detective created by Dorothy Sayers, a character not unlike Hercule Poirot, a rightful occupant of the front row in the list of illustrious amateur detectives, and one, who Sayers once commented was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, so it is not unnatural for the publishers to use the Lord’s name as a marketing vehicle for the collection.

However, as you read the twelve stories that comprise the collection, you realise that only four of them feature the aristocratic sleuth. And they are not the best stories in the collection either. Pride of place should perhaps go the story titled The Man Who Knew How, a light satire on the genre itself – truly brilliant stuff. It is one of the two stories in the collection that don’t feature either Wimsey or the intriguing Montague Egg, a travelling wine salesman by profession who does some crime-busting on the side.

Montague Egg features in six of the stories, solving crimes by virtue of simple thinking and common sense. Modest when it comes to accepting too much credit for his final achievements, Egg’s otherwise persistently and mostly self-referential chatter is interesting in itself, as is his tendency to quote from the seemingly encyclopaedic Salesman’s Handbook, a collection of (mostly) rhyming aphorisms for people in that profession. Ranging from the philosophical “Discretion plays a major part in making up a salesman’s art, for truths that no one can believe are calculated to deceive” to the more practical “The salesman’s job is to get the trade – don’t leave the house till the deal is made.”

Like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers also wrote, apart from a few other things, what one may call “puzzle fiction”, as opposed to crime fiction. It’s a genre in which the plots are precisely carved, the characters are neatly etched, the detective is a memorable character, the motives are clearly established, the settings are picture-perfect and the endings are pleasingly well-rounded. To achieve all this, you need space, time and sufficient events to build up the plot. This is something the short story format does not afford, and it shows in Hangman’s Holiday, particularly in the stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey aristocracy, his stately pace of working, his detailed approach, evident in some of Sayers’ full-length novels (Murder Must Advertise comes to mind) just don’t get a look-in in the works of this collection. The story titled The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey is a particularly terrible tale. The Egg stories are relatively better, because of the light touch.

Overall, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction when you read the stories, a sense of something hurried, a sense of there being too many loose ends, a sense of glibness in the detection; in sum, a sense of artificiality permeates the collection. And yes, I must confess I didn’t understand the title.

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