RogerBW's Blog

The Documents in the Case, Dorothy Sayers and Robert Eustace 12 March 2018

1930 epistolary mystery, Sayers' only non-Wimsey crime novel. An expert on edible fungi dies after eating mushrooms he picked himself: the mistake that was bound to happen eventually? A dossier of evidence suggests otherwise.

There's not a great deal of mystery here: while there's some question of accident, suicide or murder, if it's the last of those there's only ever really one candidate for murderer. What it's really good for, though, is the period atmosphere, particularly in the first section, dealing with a mismatched couple (older widower, younger second wife), their not-quite-a-servant (the wife's companion, one of the millions of post-War "surplus women"), and the two young artistic types who rent their attic rooms. Later, the widower's son by his first marriage comes into it too.

I asked, why Bayswater, of all places? Why not Chelsea or Bloomsbury? But Lathom said no, the rents were too high, and besides, Chelsea and Bloomsbury were hopelessly arty and insincere. They lived at second-hand and had no beliefs. To see life lived in the raw, one ought really to go to Harringay or Tooting, but they were really not central enough. Bayswater was near enough to be convenient and far enough out to be a healthy suburb.

One of the artistic types is a writer, and we get his letters to his fiancée as he works on a Life that he hopes will pay enough to let them marry; we also have the thoughts of the companion. One of the splendid things here is that each of the authors seems, in their own letters, to be reasonably pleasant and the sort of person one might like to know; and yet when they interact with each other, they don't at all get on, and their opinions of each other tend to decline over time. The epistolary style is also a way of getting round the problem that the author's narration in a mystery is usually required to be strictly correct (if misleading), while statements by characters need not be; apart from a paragraph or two near the end, nothing here is author's narration.

On the other hand, there's plenty of speculation about the nature of life and the universe, and the reconciliation of the divine with scientific fact, that shows where Sayers' own sympathy lay (rather than with the fundamentalist tendency – the Scopes trial was only in 1925, after all – which was trying to keep them separate and opposed). This may seem sluggish at times, but I found it fascinating in itself, even if does bring the plot about the death and its solution to a halt for a while.

"Robert Eustace", the physician Eustace Barton who also wrote mystery and crime fiction (including The Sorceress of the Strand which I've previously reviewed on the blog), apparently supplied the central technical problem (one that's very common knowledge now), and provided extensive medical and scientific details connected to it – though his writing career was mostly in the 1890s and 1900s, and this was the last book to which he contributed. The writing is very much in Sayers' style.

"Oh, well, that's quite simple. Ordinarily speaking, the vibrations in the aether — need I explain aether?"

"I wish you could," said Hoskyns.

In its way this feels like just as much a reaction to the foundation-smashing revelations of relativity and quantum physics as Lovecraft's horror fiction was:

It used to be considered highly unphilosophical to indulge in speculations about coincidence, still more to base any work of art upon it — but that was in the days when we believed in causality. Now, thanks to the Quantum theory and the second law of thermo-dynamics, we know better. We know that the element of randomness is what makes the Universe go round, and that the writers of sensation novels are wiser in their generation than the children of sweetness and light.

And after all that there's still the core story; a reader familiar with the Thompson-Bywaters case will recognise the way some of the characters here act and be led to speculate about the degree of guilt of one person in particular. This is a book of layers, one that's open to multiple readings, and one that I think repays close attention.

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See also:
The Sorceress of the Strand, L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

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