In four previous posts for this site, R.T. (Raicho) Raichev, who did his doctoral dissertation on the literature of Britain’s Golden Age of mystery, has examined aspects of the work of P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Sherlock Holmes. This time he turns his attention to Dorothy L. Sayers. His own fiction, most of which belongs to a series starring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne, is in the tradition of the Golden Age, but has a very modern edge. The Darcy stories have been appearing in EQMM for several years, and we have one you won’t want to miss, “The Mysterious Affair at Osiris House,” coming up in our July/August issue. The author currently divides his time between Dubai, where he works as a teacher, and London.—Janet Hutchings
If there had been any would-be murderers present at the Foyles luncheon at Grosvenor House in London in July 1936, they might have been able to pick up some useful tips as to how to commit the perfect murder.* The theme of the luncheon party was crime, which was not surprising given that the majority of the invitees constituted the creme-de-la creme of the British detective story-writing fraternity—or perhaps sorority would be more exact—of the period. When asked by a journalist how to commit a murder that would remain undetected, Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, responded that all you had to do was make sure the murder was never thought of as murder and was thus police-proof.
* In 1929 a stockman called Snowy Rowles overheard Australian crime writer Robin Upfield discussing the body disposal technique he planned to use in his novel The Sands of Windee, and copied it to commit three murders of his own, leading to what was at the time a hugely famous trial. Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial.
Sayers was clearly fascinated by the idea of the perfect murder as is evident from the fact that she made it the nexus of several of her tales. Blood of the wrong group is deliberately used for transfusion in “Blood Sacrifice” resulting in the death of the injured man who receives it, injecting an air bubble into a vein with a hypodermic syringe produces the symptoms of heart failure in Unnatural Death**, while “The Leopard Lady” introduces a creepy cabal that specializes in human removals. This last, in my opinion, deserves special attention as it shows Sayers at her most outrageously inventive, most fantastical, and most suspenseful. Lord Peter doesn’t make an appearance, nor do the police; detection plays no part, and the murderer gets away with it. For a story by one of the Golden Age Big Four, it is also remarkable in that it involves the cold-blooded killing of a child.***
** According to one Sayers biographers, this was an ingenious but medically very doubtful murder method, suggested to her by her familiarity with motor engines, gained from an affair she had with a car mechanic and motorbike enthusiast.
*** No child is ever killed in any other Golden Age story, at least I fail to find any—not until 1956 when Agatha Christie has a Girl Guide called Marlene found strangled in Dead Man’s Folly.
“The Leopard Lady” was published in the 1939 collection In the Teeth of the Evidence, though Sayers’s biographer Barbara Reynolds dates it back to 1928. Apparently it was conceived as the first in a series and it is a great pity that the project failed to materialize. The story starts with a man called Tressider—a name redolent of stolid respectability—who hears a mysterious voice in his ear suggesting the liquidation of his young nephew. If the boy is in the way, ask at Rapallo’s for Smith & Smith. We soon learn that in the event of the nephew’s demise, Tressider stands to inherit a fabulous fortune. We are also told that Tressider secretly dreams about the boy’s death and is now wondering whether the message was not “his own subconscious wish that had externalized itself in this curious form.”
Tressider is at a railway station. He has bought the Strand with the intention of whiling away a tedious train journey. He is surrounded by “utter strangers”: an elderly gentleman with a crooked pince-nez, poring over Blackwood’s, a militant woman, a dejected little man. This is a very English galere of comic characters, none of whom conforms to Tressider’s concept of a professional assassin, yet it has to be one of them who delivered the message. Sayers creates an atmosphere of unsettling uncertainty worthy of Hitchcock. The choice of magazines on the other hand smacks of a postmodern joke, the author hinting slyly that the strange events about which we are reading resemble the kind of stories that used to appear in Blackwood’s and the Strand. It was in the Strand that Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures were first published, and Sayers’s sinister syndicate of Smiths could be seen as a somewhat absurdist, though equally lethal, version of Professor Moriarty’s criminal gang.****
**** In “The Empty House” Sherlock Holmes tells us that it was Moriarty who commissioned the powerful air gun capable of firing revolver bullets at long range, which was used by his associate Colonel Moran to kill the Hon. Ronald Adair. Holmes describes Moriarty as “the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld.”
Tressider, at once reluctant and eager, begins to follow a trail of clues that lead him to the principal Smith, the head of Removals Inc. Smith***** is another incongruous figure: “stoutish . . . middle-aged . . . with chubby features beneath an enormous expanse of polished and dome-like skull.” He smiles “pleasantly” and speaks in a “clear, soft voice with a fluting quality which made it very delightful to listen to.” He brings to mind Dickens’s Mr Pickwick—which makes it all the more shocking when he starts discussing terms for the “permanent removal” of six-year-old Cyril. Smith seems to know everything about Tressider and his nephew who is also his ward. It is evident that Smith & Smith choose their prospective clients, having done their comprehensive homework on them. . . .
***** The name “Smith,” which Sayers gives to her professional murderers, is the epitome of cliched anonymity. Smith used to be one of commonest surnames in the UK. Interestingly, it is the complete antithesis to “Freke,” the outlandishly memorable name Sayers chose for the murderer in her first novel Whose Body? Shows how unpredictable Sayers could be.
The story has a grim inevitability about it. Tressider—from whose viewpoint most of the events are related—provides Smith with a specific piece of information concerning Cyril’s habit of “romancing,” which in turn decides the manner of the boy’s disposal. “Accidents will naturally sometimes happen,” Smith tells Tressider. “No one can prevent it . . .” At one point Tressider is “unnerved” and starts feeling ill. Sayers imbues Tressider with enough humanity to show that he is not some completely heartless monster, nothing like the evil uncle of Gothic literature, neither an Uncle Silas nor a Count Olaf, but he is weak, greedy, and amoral. He, it is revealed, has lost money in unwise investments as well as on the turf. Despite his misgivings, he yields to the temptation of murder for gain, which is also murder by proxy.
Sayers effectively treads a tightrope between whimsy and horror. Smith’s associates are three men, called, respectively, Smythe, Smyth, and Schmidt. The last-named is “the giggling man with the scanty red beard and steel-rimmed spectacles”—clearly a German, very possibly Jewish. It also opens Sayers to accusations of anti-Semitism. The fourth associate is female: a girl with slanting yellow eyes, like a cat’s. She is introduced as Miss Smith and the reader may fleetingly wonder whether she is the top man’s daughter. It is Miss Smith who kills Tressider’s nephew by feeding him poisonous potato-apples.
The fee for poor Cyril’s removal is £1000 (about £69,000 in today’s money—about $86,657), which Tressider considers rather cheap. He is then instructed to establish an alibi for the day of the murder and Smith obligingly suggests Scotland: “There is salmon, there is trout, there’s grouse, there’s partridge—all agreeable creatures to kill.”
Smith refers to Cyril with callous irony as “the young gentleman of great expectations.” The boy’s penchant for making up fantastic tales is not unlike that of the romancing children that populate the stories of Saki. But unlike Saki’s juvenile fantasists who are survivors, he perishes. Cyril likes to pretend “he’s had all kinds of adventures with giants and fairies and tigers.” When eventually he is approached by a yellow-eyed woman who offers to play with him, he immediately dubs her a “real live fairy” and the “Leopard Lady.” He tells his aunt all about his feast with the Leopard Lady in the grotto on the deserted grounds of a nearby country house. The aunt of course refuses to believe the Leopard Lady exists. When Cyril complains of a tummy-ache and eventually dies, the contents of his stomach are found to contain solanine, a deadly alkaloid present in potato-apples. The theory formed by the doctor, which Cyril’s aunt never questions, is that the boy picked the apples and ate them as part of one of his make-believe games. . . .
It is well known that Sayers was extremely erudite and exceedingly well versed in classical culture. We can also assume that she believed in evil in its theological sense—after all, didn’t she abandon crime writing in order to be able to spend her time translating Dante’s Inferno into English and writing her own play about Jesus, The Man Born to be King? She was clearly interested, in a way that transcends detective stories, in the ethics and metaphysics of why people do terrible things. Therefore it may not be too fanciful to consider “The Leopard Lady” in that light.
Sayers tells us that the yellow-eyed young woman “should have been called Melusine.” Melusine is a shape-shifting character from European mythology sometimes depicted as a serpent from the waist down. So we have the Serpent and the Apple fed to an Innocent in a garden whose splendiferous perfection brings to mind the Garden of Eden, to a disastrous end. . . . A re-imagining of the Bible story masquerading as a perverse tale of suspense? Is Mr. Smith then the Devil? Or is that altogether too fanciful?
“The Leopard Lady” was adapted for television in 1950 and was broadcast as part of the series Lights Out.