Sunday, 22 April 2007

The Documents in the Case

A rare thing for me these ancient and decrepit days, I stayed up very late last night (someone else happily slept next to me despite the light) reading Dorothy Sayers' The Documents in the Case, an early whodunnit from the pen of (in my opinion) the best of the golden age crime novelists. It had been on the 'to read' shelf (which is about 5 ft long) for several years but I picked it up yesterday after enjoying an 80s BBC adaptation of another Sayers, Have his Carcase, starring Edward Petherbridge. (If anyone reading this blog is old enough to remember these dramas, you'll know that Petherbridge might have been born to play Lord Peter Wimsey, and the only regret was that the BBC asked him to play the part when he about 20 years too old for it, great lighting notwithstanding!)

This early Sayers (written in conjunction with Robert Eustace, a doctor who assisted various early 20th crime novelists) is surprisingly fun, despite the absence of Lord Peter. Her observations of middle class London life, and the explorations of various popular scientific and philosophical ideas that arise in the course of conversations are neat, winsome, pointed and addictive. The characters are all complex, and even when the murder is solved, the various, often contradictory, narrative perspectives (the novel is a collection of letters) continue to play in the reader's mind.

The explorations of gender mores and the references to endochrine secretions caught my eye, as I'm delving into that at the moment for the Jubilee Centre (and in some ways, there's not much more to say than what Sayers did...). Plenty of religious imagery and ideas to keep the idle mind active. The word 'decoct' (like concoct, only you get what you want by breaking down something else, not by putting it together) was a treat, and took me back to happy undergraduate days at Cambridge making up silly words with Nick and Paul over green tea, in a rather neo-Edwardian fashion. (You can tell I like this stuff, can't you. I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn't have done a bit better as English gent in the 20s, or even a whimsical Lord...)

The engineers in the story came across as slightly repressed characters - bad empathizers, in the language of Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he is related to Ali G) - and one of them was hopelessly uncultured. I did think that was rather unfair, given that of the engineers I know, one is an international concert pianist, another writes songs, another wears cravats...