I found Dorothy L. Sayers through the TVs adaptations of 'Strong Poison', 'Have His Carcase', and 'Gaudy Night' with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter in 1987. I was just in my teens so the romantic element of Peter and Harriet's relationship appealed to me. I bought the books and loved them. Then I collected the rest of Sayers books.
Looking at this one it was clear I never finished it - I gave up somewhere around two thirds of the way through (I know this because I dog ear pages to mark my place - do not judge me, it's a bad habit with the one bonus of being able to record how I've read books in the past). Having finished it this time I think my teenage self was quite right to call it quits.
As far as I'm concerned age has withered Sayers to the point that I find her books quite problematic. It always surprises me how little Sayers is criticised for her high Tory politics, snobbery, anti semitism, and racism - especially considering just how much criticism some of her contemporaries recieve. To quote from the second page "Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners except dagoes and n*****s..."
Quite apart from this not being a notable characteristic of the English it's a statement that seems unnecessarily offensive even for 1931. Moving in from the racism there's the disdain for anyone who isn't an aristocrat, intellectual, or artist - working class characters, when they appear, are charicatures.
The remaining female characters get short shrift too, there's a wife who might be a motive for murder, described as stupid and dangerous. Lord Peter occasionally descends to insult her at length, and everyone seems to bemoan the fact that her husband doesn't manage to escape her. Another woman provides a dodgy alibi, apparently for the purpose of trying to trap someone into marrying her (top tip - however desperate for a husband you might be, do try and make sure the prospective man isn't a murderer). The men gather around to discuss what a piece of work she is - giving the impression that Sayers really doesn't much like women at all (from memory this is fairly typical of her books).
Then there's the witness who's Jewish, I think he's meant to provide a comic turn, I can think of no
other reason why he's given an almost incomprehensible lisp, but it makes tedious reading as well as offensive caricature. I'm not keen on the very broad Scottish accents she writes either, but by now I'm in the mood to be annoyed.
Plot wise a really objectionable artist, drunk and set in committing acts of grevious bodily harm on everybody he meets, is found dead in a river, a half finished canvas in the bank above. It looks like an accident, but there's something missing that makes Lord Peter suspect murder. The doctor's report bears out his suspicions, but there are 6 possible suspects - 5 of them red herrings. Quite a long time, and a lot of train timetables later all is revealed. There are some ingenious clues, and bits that are fun, but such a lot that's not.
This definitely isn't Sayers best work (I'm beginning to think her best work is her book reviews, which are great) and I'm rather wishing I hadn't read it. It's going to cast a long shadow over the rest of her books for me from now on.
Rather more enjoyable was searching for Kircudbright related artists, who's work more or less corresponds to Sayers descriptions. There are a lot more to choose from, it's worth a google.
E A Hornel
William Hanna Clarke