My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
After reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy from the 1990s, it’s interesting to see a more contemporary treatment of WWI shell shock in Dorothy Sayers’s detective stories. Barker’s novels were justly celebrated for their unflinching realism in documenting the effects of PTSD on WWI veterans. Sayers’s novels, by contrast, flinch a bit—Lord Peter has only had a single “fit” to date, and the issues experienced by his friend, George Fentiman, are somewhat glossed over compared to Barker’s clinical catalog of sexual and gastrointestinal symptoms.
But even if her exploration of shell shock is less than comprehensive, it’s clear that Sayers wants to explore everything the war had done to an entire generation of men. When George does go into a fit after finding his grandfather’s dead body, she writes, “It is doubtful which occurrence was more disagreeable to the senior members of the Bellona Club—the grotesque death of General Fentiman in their midst or the indecent neurasthenia of his grandson. Only the younger men felt no sense of outrage; they knew too much.” It’s this disconnect, between the standards of the “old school and the incomprehensible chaos of the young men’s war, that inadvertently creates much of the misunderstanding between the principal characters.
The other major societal rupture Sayers explores is the way that science and art both depart from tradition. One of the primary suspects in the case is a young woman, Ann Dorland, who has attempted to discover her “calling,” first in modern art, then in modern science: a pivotal scene takes place during a lecture where a doctor attempts to prove that all notions of evil and sin are simply misfirings of the endocrine system. (A priest on hand to witness the lecture remarks to the speaker, “My dear man, if you can cure sin with an injection, I shall be only too pleased. Only be sure you don’t pump in something worse in the process.”)
I mentioned in my review of Unnatural Death that the character of Miss Climpson, a Catholic spinster with an ear for relevant gossip, was one of my favorite characters, and I must admit that I have a similarly favorable opinion of Miss Dorland, a young woman who is ostensibly interested in modern art, then in modern science, but whose actual interest most likely like in modern attitudes toward sex. There is something sympathetic about a woman who sees everything the modern age promises, decides she’s going to have a bit of the fun that the men are talking about.
Of course, as Miss Dorland finds out, sexism is one of the old superstitions that the bright young things have failed to vanquish, and she soon finds her desires used as fodder for both jokes and blackmail. Sayers (and Lord Peter Wimsey through her) seems to recognize the unique and cruel ways that the promise of a new way of life can fail those who stand the most to gain by it.
I’m afraid I’ve strayed from the focus on the central mystery, which is too bad, as it’s quite ingeniously done, and arrived at in an unexpected way. You can see Sayers improving her craft with every novel, and after finishing this one, it’s easy to see why she decides to introduce Harriet Vane in the next novel. She’d worked out the Wimsey formula here; it feels like it’s time to try something new.
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