Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Sayers’

Adventures in Bookland: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Monday, November 5th, 2018

Not often a reader of murder mysteries, I put this on my Kindle because it was free (out of copyright) and came up first in a list when I was in a hurry to catch a train and suffering from abibliophobia, not having a print book to hand and worried I might not have time to buy one. Dorothy Sayers wrote one of the most profound books on the connection between creativity and the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker, so I was curious to read her more work-a-day work. Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective, was Sayer’s most lucrative creation and the one she remains best known for. This is his third appearance and, in it, Sayers seems minded to show some of his limitations, from a plan to smoke out the killer that goes tragically wrong, to being in the wrong place at the wrong time so that one of his assistants is all but murdered.

As a detective story, the killer is clear early on. What’s at play is the how and the why. It’s a mark of how good a writer Sayers is that this is enough to keep the reader interested to the end of the book: as is its portrayal of 1920s England, a place that now seems almost impossibly far away although when I was young, in the 1970s, it seemed still in the recent past. I suppose that is the difference that half a century makes, particularly a half century that has seen such change. Recommended for readers of detective fiction or anyone interested in a dispassionate portrayal of the mores and social hierarchies of a now long past England.


Adventures in Bookland: Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015
Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness

A while back I read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and loved it: its mix of no-nonsense theology and creative analysis provided me with the best, and most personal, account of the Trinity I have ever read. In the dim past, Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Commedia was the first version of the work I read, and her determination to include Dante’s terza rima scheme gave me some first pale idea of the power of the original. But, of course, nowadays (and indeed during her life), Sayers is best known for her detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey, so I thought I would give one of these a go.

Case solved. It’s not for me. Not for any lack of ingenuity or paucity of literary skill – quite the opposite. The book gives a terrifically acerbic account of upper-class country house life just after the Great War. The mystery is ingenious and the plotting as thorough as any of the other great ladies of detective fiction.

No, it’s the language. Where Sayers’ brusque, almost staccato use of language worked to bracing effect in The Mind Of the Maker, here I found it like listening to pebbles being fired at a corrugated iron wall – one after another after another. This is purely a personal taste and I’m sure other people will find the style as invigorating as I found it exhausting. I do wonder if the style is specific to this particular book, or continues through the series. I will probably dip into another Lord Peter Wimsey to see how it reads in comparison to Clouds of Witness. But, for now, that’s enough – I feel like I’ve been sandblasted!

Book review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L Sayers

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
The Mind of the Maker

The Mind of the Maker

A while back, when taking a theology MA, a group of we students were put together in a group and left, by our tutor, with the instruction to talk about the Trinity. Now, this wasn’t one of those assemblages where fear of talking leads to agonised glances around to see if someone else will be brave enough to start things rolling – no, we were a voluble group, with most of us (not least me) quite convinced that what we had to say was quite as valuable as our tutor (so what if he had about four different degrees, various masters and enough doctorates to start a small clinic; we knew what we thought and we were damned if we weren’t going to tell everyone else too. Writing this, a number of years later, I wonder if that might be a clue as to why he shoved us all off into small groups to talk among ourselves.) So, there we were, dispatched to talk on the Trinity and, for the one and only occasion during the MA, I saw the flickering glances, the sidelong looks, the panicked, ‘Oh, God, I’ll have to say something if no one else will,’ glaze in people’s eyes. In the end, if memory serves, I plunged first into the pool of silence: ‘Look, do any of us understand what the Trinity is?’

Yes, that is what the Trinity will do to a group of even reasonably well read and devout Christians. Possibly the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and we are plunged into stuttering silence. It really isn’t good enough and, to judge by the acerbic tone of her introduction, Dorothy L Sayers shares the latter judgement and wrote The Mind of the Maker to challenge the first.  In fact, having finished it, I really wish I’d had the book to hand when we all sat around, tongues tied, trying to define what we’d all, apparently, written off at some level as the undefinable.

Now, of course, in one sense that is right: God is not definable, He can be no more (in fact, rather less) pinned down in words than can, say, the colour red. But, as with colour, we can use language analogically of God; He can be approached through metaphor. And here Sayers makes a crucial point, and one that immediately spoke to me: God is, both in his being and in terms of the language we use of him, far more the God of artists, of composers and painters and writers, than he is the God of philosophers and, dare I say, theologians. Of course, I should have known this all along. After all, God, the God of testaments Old and New, is a storyteller, weaving tales from history and then, in the most daring (and difficult to pull off; just ask Stephen King with respect to his Dark Tower cycle) stroke of all, God put Himself, as character into the story He was telling and, as a player on the stage, we know that God not only loves stories, He tells them: parables, phrases so vivid with meaning they have shook loose from history to enter the every day.

Let me quote Sayers at a little length (the quote from a play she wrote, The Zeal of Thy House, and sums up what she expands upon in The Mind of the Maker):

For every work (or act) of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.

Now, as a writer, I can understand this. Sayers argues that this creative process, discernible in the Trinity, is also the template by which human creation works, a shadow of our maker, and in this she is supported by Tolkien, who in his great creation myth in The Silmarillion sees Men, and Elves, very much as sub-creators, most like God when we make, as He makes and, ultimately, when the world is refashioned and made right, Tolkien’s vision stretches even to a final great music of Creation, when Men and Elves join their voices to the music of Creation and, hearing what they fashion and hearing that it is good, God gives life to their fashionings, that they be real, as His own makings are.

I’ve gone on about this for a bit, but this really is a book worth reading, pondering on, and then reading again. Although I got it from the library, I will buy it: this is a keeper.