RogerBW's Blog

In the Teeth of the Evidence, Dorothy Sayers 02 June 2018

1939 collection of seventeen short mystery stories, some involving Lord Peter Wimsey. Minor spoilers.

As before, those are the first in the book. Neither of them mentions Harriet at all.

In The Teeth of the Evidence is clearly inspired by, and even mentions, the Rouse case: someone has burned to death in his car, and dental evidence is the only way of confirming the identity. Of course, with Wimsey involved, it's not going to be as straightforward as it appears. This is a decent technical mystery but not great on characterisation.

Absolutely Elsewhere has a man murdered in his country home, but the main suspects were telephoning to the butler from London at the time, and he heard the clock in their flat. Of course, when someone in a detective story has such an absolute alibi, it's there to be broken; and indeed it is. There's some consideration of the telephone as a new and mysterious device, but again not much of the whimsy of Wimsey.

He was rather like his brother only a little slimmer and a little more suave in speech, as befitted a Civil Servant.

Five Montague Egg stories come next, starting with A Shot at Goal, which sets up a murder but has an almost shaggy-dog level of bathetic resolution.

Dirt Cheap has Egg staying in a bad hotel, and misconstruing data into false evidence.

Bitter Almonds suffers from being a detective story; its situation is too obviously set up in order to be overturned.

False Weight has a good false accusation and an ingenious method, but completely forgets to give a motive to the actual murderer.

The Professor's Manuscript gives itself away too soon, but has a good idea and develops it well.

The rest of the book consists of stories largely without recurring characters, though The Milk-Bottles does feature the reporter Hector Puncheon (previously seen in Murder Must Advertise).

The Sub-editor looked rapidly through it, struck out the first and last paragraphs, removed Hector's more literary passages, ran three sentences into one, gratuitously introducing two syntactical errors in the process, re-cast the story from the third person into the first, headed it "By a Milk-Roundsman," and sent it down to the printers. In this form it appeared the next morning, and Hector Puncheon, not recognizing his mutilated offspring, muttered bitterly that somebody had pinched his idea.

It's a short tale of the anonymity of London, and how people tend to ignore what might turn out to be very serious indications of a problem.

Dilemma takes a simplistic ethics discussion ("if you could get a million pounds by pressing a button to kill a random Chinaman, would you?") and stretches it into more plausible (if still somewhat forced) situations with more plausible people – and then flips it inside-out. Very neatly done.

An Arrow o'er the House deals with an unpublished writer who's trying to get a publisher's attention for his new book.

"The fact is, Miss Robbins," said Mr. Humphrey Podd, "that we don't go the right way about it. We are too meek, too humdrum. We write—that is, I write—a story that is a hair-raiser, a flesh-creeper, a blood-curdler, calculated to make stony-eyed gorgons howl in their haunted slumbers. And what do we do with it?"

Miss Robbins, withdrawing from the typewriter the final sheet of The Time Will Come! by Humphrey Podd, fastened it to the rest of the chapter with a paper clip and gazed timidly at her employer.

"We send it to a publisher," she hazarded.

"Yes," repeated Mr. Podd, bitterly, "we send it to a publisher."

There's a certain amount of drawn-out tragedy which makes the resolution feel unsatisfactory to me.

Scrawns continues the theme of the previous two stories, with someone (in this case a new servant) deciding that something is going very wrong, and taking steps to try to stop it, when in fact there's an innocent explanation. This might have worked better if the three had been spaced further apart in the book.

Nebuchadnezzar catches the conscience of the King, or at least of a murderer, but mostly it's a beautiful piece of writing.

The Inspiration of Mr. Budd has a barber with an unexpected chance to be heroic. It feels oddly Chestertonian in style.

Blood Sacrifice has a playwright whose work has been butchered… and has become hugely successful as a result. His benefactor and enemy is hit by a car, and needs a blood transfusion, but only of the right sort… actually this is the sort of story one writes when one has learned a really interesting technical thing and wants to share it in fiction, but (as in Christianna Brand's Green for Danger) the error that's hinted at is one that elementary procedures would make impossible. (When those procedures actually came in, I don't know.)

Suspicion is a surprisingly grim account of paranoia. The new cook seems very good, but is she that serial poisoner who vanished at about the same time? Stomach-aches have many causes…

The Leopard Lady is a story of murder for hire in the manner of The Pale Horse; it's mostly an admiration of the neat method, with the client and victim almost secondary.

The Cyprian Cat goes solidly into the supernatural, or at least that's the only explanation that makes sense if the narrative is to be taken as true.

There's certainly a downbeat tone to many of these stories, though nothing quite as grim as the stand-alones in Hangman's Holiday. Quality is highly variable, but some of the good moments are very good indeed.

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Previous in series: Busman's Honeymoon | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: Striding Folly

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