…in which the Usual Suspects undertake a discussion of the ninth volume in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers by first briefly recounting the author’s life and times.. Sayers was one of a group of distinguished authors of crime fiction during that genre’s first Golden Age, usually described as taking place during the years between the two world wars.
Murder Must Advertise was Mike’s choice for our April book. She got us started with some background material on the author. Born in 1893, Dorothy Sayers was the late-in-life only child of the Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Mary (Leigh) Sayers. Although born in Oxford, she grew up in the village of Bluntisham, in the fen country of eastern England. Sayers enjoyed a happy childhood, where her apparent gifts were recognized and encouraged by her parents. In 1912 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. She completed her studies there in 1915. At that time, Oxford did not grant its full degree to women. That policy changed in 1920. Sayers returned to the university in order to be among the first women to receive this momentous and well-deserved honor.
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Sayers was desperately cobbling together various means of employment and still dependent to an extent on her parents’ largesse. Finally, in 1922, she landed a job writing copy at H.F. Benson, an advertising agency in London. She worked there until 1931. It was during this period that she conceived and began writing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.
Dorothy Sayers’s personal life at this juncture can best be described as turbulent. Eric Whelpton, her first love, enjoyed her company but never really reciprocated her affections. She then became involved with John Cournos, a self-important writer and ideologue who served as the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. When that affair ended, she took up with Bill White, a cheerfully unpretentious person with whom she could just have regular fun. A bit too much fun, as it turns out: in June of 1923, Dorothy realized she was pregnant. Bill White reacted badly to the news. She might have considered marrying him, but it turned out that he was already married, and already a father.
Sayers took a leave of absence from H.F. Benson and went into seclusion, in order to see the pregnancy through, in strictest secrecy. Once the child was born, he was given to Ivy Shrimpton. a favorite cousin, to raise and care for. Shrimpton and her mother ran a home for foster children; this presented the perfect camouflage for the presence of Sayers’s son, whom she named John Anthony.
In 1926, Dorothy Sayers married Oswald Arthur Fleming, a World War One veteran and journalist invariably known among his acquaintance as “Mac.” Mac was divorced, with two children by his former wife. Dorothy and Mac’s marriage was not without its challenges. Mac had been injured in the war and was ultimately unable to work. Dorothy had to support them both. In addition, Mac drank heavily and came to resent his wife’s growing success and fame as the author of the Lord Peter novels.
Meanwhile, with her new husband, Dorothy came clean about her past. When told about John Anthony, Mac was not only undismayed but actually expressed a desire to bring the boy into their family circle. In the event, John Anthony never did come to live with them, even though they “informally ‘adopted'” him. (I’m not sure exactly what that means.)John Anthony also took ‘Fleming’ as his last name.
The marriage endured until Mac died in 1950. At the time, they were living in Sunnyside Cottage in Witham, Essex. Sayers stayed on in the cottage after Mac’s death. She suffered a massive and ultimately fatal heart attack seven years later. She was 64 years old.
One of the Suspects expressed surprise that a woman as modern and enlightened as Dorothy L. Sayers should be so shamed and secretive about an out of wedlock pregnancy. In Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose offers a partial explanation:
Today we can only begin to imagine the agonies of conscience [Sayers] must have suffered. England after the war was a profoundly changed place: moral standards and behavioral rules had shifted dramatically in a relatively short time. In London, just as in New York and Chicago, the 1920s roared with sex, drugs, and jazz. But some things remained verboten, and for women of Dorothy’s class and religion, unwed pregnancy was still at the top of the forbidden list.
DuBose goes on to expound on the likely repercussions Sayers would have suffered had she gone public with her situation: “It would have meant lifelong shame for herself, her child, and her entire family. Her parents, in their seventies, would be humiliated. Dorothy would likely lose her job and all hope of financial independence.”
It should be remembered that beneath Sayers’s breezy, confident, and liberated exterior there beat the heart of a deeply religious woman. She was in some ways quite conservative. Above all, she was desperate to protect her parents from any anguish or mortification caused by her own actions.
In the recent Winter issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter states: “Some books should never go out of print.” He was referring to the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Happily this perplexing state of affairs has been at least partly ameliorated by HarperCollins. Under the imprint of Bourbon Street Books, the publisher is in the process of reissuing the books in trade paperback editions with beautifully designed covers.
At this time, the plan includes only the novels featuring Harriet Vane. We can but hope that in the fullness of time, HarperCollins will see fit to bring forth the remaining series entries.
In a BBC piece on Dorothy Sayers, Jane Curran writes:
The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes.
Curran adds: “Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. ”
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which H.F. Benson is transformed into Pym’s Publicity through the art of the supremely gifted novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers.
The Blackhouse is a big, ambitious novel. Its chief protagonist is Finlay MacLeod is a police officer in Edinburgh. As the novel begins, Fin is investigating a homicide that took place in that city when DCI Black, his boss, suddenly informs him that he’s being sent to the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. It seems that a murder there closely resembles MacLeod’s Edinburgh case as regards the killer’s MO. One other important point: Fin MacLeod was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis.
Fin has not been back to Lewis for a long time. There are reasons for his lengthy absence. He has no living family members still on the island. But he does have friends, a former lover, and other associations still there. The woman he had loved, and known from childhood, was called Marjorie – Marsaili in Gaelic, pronounced Marshally in that language. Fin’s best friend had been Artair Macinnes. Artair and Marsaili were now married; they had a son named Fionnlagh, which is Fin’s own Gaelic name. If this sounds like a complex and potentially fraught situation – it is.
Nevertheless, Fin must follow orders and return to Lewis, to look into the murder of Angus Macritchie. In times past, Macritchie had been the archetypal schoolyard bully, disliked by Fin and pretty much everyone else on the island. Now he was dead, and it’s up to Fin to find out who killed him and why.
Meanwhile, Fin’s personal life in Edinburgh has been slowly and painfully disintegrating. He has suffered a terrible bereavement, and his marriage is on the rocks. It’s a good time to get away from Edinburgh. But Fin is apprehensive about returning to the Isle of Lewis – and it turns out, he has good reason to feel that way.
Peter May’s depiction of life on this remote outpost is meticulous and vivid. Here, Fin recalls a moment from his childhood on the island:
The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled with them. Usually doublers. We watched one that day, forming fast over the peatbog, vivid against the blackest of blue-black skies. It took away the need for words
In a later scene, Fin and a fellow officer are driving up the west coast of the island:
He watched the villages drift by, like moving images in an old family album, every building, every fencepost and blade of grass picked out in painfully sharp relief by the sun behind them. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere….The tiny village primary schools, too, were empty, still shut for the summer holidays. Fin wondered where all the children were. To their right, the peatbog drifted into a hazy infinity, punctuated only by stoic sheep standing firm against the Atlantic gales. To their left, the ocean itself swept in timeless cycles on to beaches and into rocky inlets, , creamy white foam crashing over darkly obdurate gneiss, the oldest rock on earth. The outline of a tanker, like a distant mirage, was just discernible on the horizon.
Peter May’s writing is powerful and persuasive, at times ascending to the poetic. This gift serves him well when he comes to describe an event of supreme importance to the people of Lewis: the guga harvest. Every year, a limited number of men are invited to be a part of this unique island tradition. It begins with a boat trip across treacherous waters to a rocky island called An Sgeir, where thousands of birds arrive during the summer months to nest and procreate. The guga, or gannets, are considered delicacies by the people of Lewis. The job of the guga hunters is to capture some two thousand birds within a two week period. The young chicks are plucked from their nests while the frantic parents flap their wings and screech in protest. The necks of the chicks are quickly broken; then they are plucked clean, slit open to receive sea salt as a preservative, and otherwise made ready for the return trip. Ultimately they will be presented to the islanders of Lewis, perfectly preserved and ready to eat.
It is considered an honor to be selected as a participant in the yearly guga harvest. Fin received just such an honor during his last summer before leaving the island to attend university in Glasgow. It is a distinction he could have well done without. He has no desire to go, but once chosen, it is virtually impossible to decline. And so, with a heavy, heart, he joins the team of hunters. After the inevitable rough crossing Fin catches sight of An Sger for the first time:
Three hundred feet of sheer black cliff streaked with white, rising straight out of the ocean in front of us….I saw what looked like snow blowing in a steady stream from the peak before I realized that the snowflakes were birds. Fabulous white birds with blue-black wingtips and yellow heads, a wingspan of nearly two metres. Gannets. Thousands of them, filling the sky, turning in the light, riding turbulent currents of air.
(The white streaks are actually bird guano. Fin had smelled An Sgeir before he’d seen it.)
An Sgeir was barely half a mile long, its vertebral column little more than a hundred yards across. There was no soil here, no grassy banks or level land, no beaches. Just shit-covered rock rising straight out of the sea.
Fin adds that he couldn’t imagine a more inhospitable place. But this is just the beginning. While engaged in the arduous labor of unloading two weeks’ worth of supplies, Fin discovers how hard it is to maintain your footing on the island. The rock is made slick not just by the guano but by the slimy green vomit produced by petrel chicks terrified by this sudden human invasion. Add to that the unceasing racket generated by the avian multitudes, and you have a sort of Hell on Earth. And there they will stay for two full weeks, carrying out the multifaceted operation of catching, killing, and preparing the birds.
There is only one place to shelter on An Sgeir. It is a blackhouse.
Although Fin can’t help but admire the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and just plain toughness of the guga hunters, he finds the two weeks on An Sgeir an awful experience, an endurance test that can’t end soon enough. And at the end of two weeks it does end. But not without two momentous occurrences, the full import of which Fin does not grasp until many years after the event.
Peter May’s evocation of life on the Isle of Lewis is deeply resonant. The geography of the place, the social order, the dominance of the church, the entire way of life – all are presented here in minute detail. There were times when I thought it might be too minute. The anthropology threatens to overwhelm the mystery. The actual crime was, for this reader, the least memorable aspect of the book. The cast of characters is fairly large; moreover, the complex narrative alternates between the present and the past. This brings up a certain aspect of the narrative style employed by May in this novel: the events of the present time are set forth in the third person, while the sections dealing with Fin’s boyhood on the island are recounted by him in the first person. It took me a while to get comfortable with this method of advancing the story.
Until I read The Blackhouse, the only knowledge I had of the Isle of Lewis had to do with the famous Chessmen, almost certainly carved by Norsemen in the early Middle Ages and discovered on the island in 1831. (In the novel, Fin recalls a bit of island legend to the effect that the crofter who found the tiny carvings, mistaking them for the “…elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore,” fled the scene in fear for his life.)
Peter May’s description of the guga harvest is riveting and bizarre to the point of almost seeming hallucinatory. Off hand, as regards its affect on the reader – this reader, anyway – the only recent fiction I can readily compare it to is Karen Russell’s astonishing story “St. Lucy’s School for Girls Raised by Wolves.” So – is there actually such a thing as the guga harvest? Indeed there is, as you will see if you click here.
There are actual blackhouses remaining in the Outer Hebrides, although few if any still serve as dwelling places. Here is Fin’s description:
The Blackhouses had dry-stone walls with thatched roofs and gave shelter to both man and beast. A peat fire burend day and night in the centre of the stone floor of the main room. It was called the fire room. There were no chimneys, and smoke was supposed to escape through a hole in the roof. Of course, it wasn’t very efficient, and the houses were always full of the stuff.
He adds: “It was little wonder that life expectancy was short.” (Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the blackhouses.)
The Blackhouse presents some structural challenges for the reader, and there were times when the plot seemed somewhat labored, if not downright irrelevant, given the fascination of the setting.. But Peter May writes beautifully, and he’s created an enormously likable protagonist in Fin MacLeod. This is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy, and I look forward to the next one.