“Dorothy L. Sayers Reviews the Early Ellery Queen” (by Joe R. Christopher)

Dr. Joe R. Christopher is an Emeritus Professor in the English Department of Tarleton State University in Texas. He’s written scholarly books (including C. S. Lewis: A Biography), essays, reviews, and short stories (in both the mystery and science-fiction genres). In this post he discusses the reviews Golden Age mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers wrote of the books of one of her contemporaries: Ellery Queen. These should be of interest to Ellery Queen fans, and to those looking for some good reads over the holidays. Nearly all of the Ellery Queen novels are available in e-editions from Mysterious Press/Open Road.—Janet Hutchings

Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed mysteries on a weekly basis for The Sunday Times from 25 June 1933 through 18 August 1935. Although there was some variation, she normally wrote about four novels in each column. Her reviews were not just of “you will enjoy” sort; she was concerned with the authors’ writing skills. It is not known specifically why she started or stopped her reviews, but a few biographical details are suggestive.

At the end of 1929, she had enough money coming in from her mysteries that she gave up her full-time job in an advertising agency. This gave her more freedom in time to focus on her novels—and related activities. She was greatly involved in the development of The Detection Club (a dining club of authors who wrote puzzle-based mysteries); they collaborated on books to support the Club—the first was Behind the Screen, with Sayers one of the authors, broadcast in June and July 1930, and published as a book soon after. In these years, Sayers edited her three-volume anthology of short mysteries—Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (called The Omnibus of Crime in America), 1928, 1931, and 1934. And she was publishing some of her best Lord Peter mysteries during these same years that she was reviewing: Murder Must Advertise, (1933), The NineTailors (1934), and Gaudy Night (1935). But her next Lord Peter mystery appeared first as a drama, Busman’s Honeymoon, in collaboration with Muriel St. Clare Byrne (1937). And soon Sayers was off to writing dramas and essays and eventually to translating Dante. She started another Lord Peter novel, but never finished it.

In Sayers’ second column, 2 July 1933, she starts with The American Gun Mystery with her subtitle of “An American Nut Worth Cracking.” She spends her first paragraph quoting seven excesses of Queen’s style. Her first sentence: “Mr. Ellery Queen is determined to be literary or die.” One of her examples: “he was in a chair, his incredible bulk quiescent as poured steel.” “Nevertheless,” she continues, the book has “a rattling good yarn with a well-constructed mystery.” She mentions the setting (the rodeo on Broadway) and some other details. (The cousins invented the Colosseum sports arena of the novel.) Sayers comments about the plot: “As to the mystery, I frankly confess that I only guessed about half of it, and on due and sour consideration I am reluctantly compelled to admit that the author was quite honourable and that the stupidity was mine.” (She mentions the five earlier mysteries by Queen in passing, at least three of which she indicates she had solved before the dénouements.)

On 3 December 1933, she reviewed Barnaby Ross’s Drury Lane’s Last Case, the last of the four mysteries by Queen about a different detective under a different authorial name. It is a mixed review. The “crime is all mixed up with Shakespeare and bibliophily; and this is the weakest part of the book. … Mr. Ross does not seem to me to quite know his Shakespeare.” (Francis M. Nevins, in Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection [2013], says that the climax of the novel depends on Shakespearean ‘facts’ that Fred Dannay and Manny Lee made up out of whole cloth.” Perhaps that was what bothered Sayers.) To continue with her review: “His central mystification has been used too often before. . . .” But she ends up with some praise for the “mysterious events [which] have a real atmosphere of oddity” and “ingenious detective work.”

Seven days later, Sayers reviewed Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery. “Mr. Queen is fantastic, involute, supersubtle, concerned with abnormal psychology and physiology, exaggerative, baroque, [with] a uniformity of tone which tends to monotony.” After several examples of style and content, she switches directions: “What saves Mr. Queen is the basis of really acute and ingenious detective work on which he founds his plot, so that one forgives his extravagance for the sake of his fundamental brain-work.” And she ends with a statement that must have meant much to the cousins if they saw their British reviews: “If only he [Queen] would master the ‘art of sinking’ in prose, he would take the rank to which his intellect entitles him, as one of the supreme masters of the detective story.”

On 7 January of the next year, Sayers has The Ellery Queen Omnibus as her fourth title. (She starts off with Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.) The Omnibus contains The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery, and The Greek Coffin Mystery. Sayers calls these “three of their author’s best-known novels,” but does not discuss them further. She does present a short history of the development of the meaning of omnibus and lightly praises the quality of the paper used in the book. One suspects that Sayers was hurried, and she picked a book that she didn’t need to freshly read for her fourth spot.

About a half year later, on 1 July 1934, The Chinese Orange Mystery leads the three books being discussed. She titles her column “Criminals Who Are Too Ingenious” and says of the killer in Queen’s novel, “for perverted ingenuity this murderer takes the absolute bun. . . . A little careless simplicity would have served his turn better.” She turns to the basic plot in terms of three questions: “Who killed him [the man waiting for a business interview]? How was the room entered and left again after the murder? And why was everything put back to front. . . . Well—I was completely led up the garden by problem No. 3, but I guessed the other two. . . .” And she added this about the writing: “. . . Mr. Queen, the author, shows distinct improvement in the direction of simplicity: he has toned down the elaboration of his literary style.”

On 3 March 1935, Sayers titles her review “The Adventures of a Highbrow Detective” and she reviews first The Adventures of Ellery Queen—the first collection of Queen’s short stories. “I am not sure that I do not like him better when thus short-circuited [that is, in short fiction, not novels]; for the mechanical limitations of the medium force him to control his besetting sin of over-writing. . . . His characters take after him in [being very intelligent], and one sometimes feels that they are fortunate beyond all reasonable expectations in finding a detective clever enough to interpret the ingenious and picturesque false clues and dying messages they leave behind them.” And again, “All these strange fantasies of bearded ladies and glass-domed clocks would be wasted on a mere forthright police constable, who would neither interpret nor misinterpret, but probably merely ignore them.” She doesn’t offer any close discussion of specific short stories.

Her final review of a Queen novel is of The Spanish Cape Mystery, on 7 April 1935. Unfortunately, it is brief—only five sentences. (What upset the balance in the review was that Sayers began with G. K. Chesterton’s The Scandal of Father Brown, and she wrote a celebration not of the specific book but of his Father Brown stories and their serious treatment of religion in mysteries.) About Queen’s novel, she says, “Mr. Ellery Queen seems to me to be sobering down a little. Fantastic he still is . . . but he is far less extravagant in language and behaviour than in, for example, ‘The Siamese Twins’ or ‘The American Gun.’” It is clearer in the review than in this selection that Sayers knowingly moves from Queen as author to Queen the character. She goes on: Queen “is suaver and less hysterical, and he has the right way with servants (always a test of breeding). In fact, I am beginning to like the man.” On that friendly note, her discussions of Ellery Queen, as author and character, can conclude.

If any reader wants to see all of Sayers’ reviews—of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham (the latter with only one review), of some authors that were well-known at the time, and of a large number that are not familiar at all—the complete reviews have been published by the Dorothy L. Sayers Society: Taking Detective Stories Seriously: The Collected Reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, Foreword by Simon Brett, edited, with an Introduction and a Commentary, by Martin Edwards (Pereth, Scotland: Tippermuir Books Ltd., 2017).

This entry was posted in Books, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Guest, History, reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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