I re-read recently this novel by queen of crime of the so-called detection golden age, Dorothy L. Sayers This is the only one of her fictional books that does not feature the aristocratic sleuth she created, Lord Peter Wimsey. I discovered him at least thirty years ago and promptly developed a crush on the multi-talented, quote-touting lady-killer detective. However, his absence did not mar my pleasure in reading this book and indeed I have read it many times.
The Documents in the Case is also the odd one out in Sayers’s detection novel corpus in two other respects: the book was written collaboratively with scientist Dr Robert Eustace Barton (Robert Eustace was his pen name) and some editions feature both authors on the cover, later ones tend to credit only Sayers.
It is also written largely in epistolary form, a style I love. “The documents in the case” consist of a series of letters and statements written by the various members of a household: a pretty and rather empty-headed woman, her decent and rather boring engineer husband, a repressed, hysterical, middle-aged lady companion and two young men, a writer and a painter, sharing a flat in the house above the family’s quarters in a suburban house. The case is that of a son investigating what he feels to be a mystery surrounding his father’s death.
The plot is as cleverly presented and the crime as satisfyingly untangled as Sayers fans would expect, but there is a lot more to the book than that. Over the years, I have become aware of many different levels that come on top of the core whodunit with a scientific twist.
Firstly, this book represents a very creditable piece of work for a non-scientist: certainly, Dr Barton provided that part of the equation, but Sayers does a terrific job at explaining a technical aspect of muscarine poisoning simply and entertainingly. The crucial point on which the solution of the mystery depends is the fact that synthetically produced muscarine does not polarise light, whereas naturally occurring muscarine does, because of its asymmetrical molecular structure. There are a number of inaccuracies in the book and Sayers said of the plot that it contained a “major howler”. She is also quoted as having said on that occasion: “’You have no idea what a strain it is to be perpetually picking out new ways of killing people.”
Organic chemistry is not the only scientific topic covered in the book: in his verbose letters to his fiancée, the writer John Munting ponders the impact of paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries: the second law of thermodynamics is referenced, as are the recent discoveries of Planck and Einstein (the novel was written in 1930).
Secondly, in terms of character development, when I first read the book as a young teenager, the portrayal of Agatha Milsom appeared to be me to be deservedly scathing. More recently, I have been wondering whether in fact Sayers had a subtler character in mind than might seem at first apparent. I suspect there is a strong element of pity from the author towards the unfortunate Agatha Milsom. After all, Sayers portrayed another middle-aged lady very sympathetically indeed in several of the Wimsey novels in the energetic and shrewd Miss Climpson. Perhaps Miss Milsom is, in Lord Peter’s words, one of those “thousands of old maids, simply bursting with useful energy” about whom “bright young men write nasty patronising little books.” A dig at John Munting the writer, perhaps?
And for mushroom enthusiasts, some background is also provided on the identification, gathering and cooking of edible fungi…