The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays

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In this anthology, renowned murder mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers tackles faith, doubt, human nature, and the most dramatic story ever told.

For almost a century, a series of labyrinthine murder mysteries have kept fans turning pages hungrily as Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane discover whodunit, again and again.

Detective novel enthusiasts may not know that for almost as many years, Christian thinkers have appreciated the same Dorothy L. Sayers for her acumen as an essayist, playwright, apologist, and preeminent translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Now, for the first time, an anthology brings together the best of both worlds. The selections uncover the gospel themes woven throughout Sayers’s popular fiction as well as her religious plays, correspondence, talks, and essays. Clues dropped throughout her detective stories reveal an attention to matters of faith that underlies all her work.

Those who know Sayers from her nonfiction writings may wonder how she could also write popular genre fiction. Sayers, like her friend G. K. Chesterton, found murder mysteries a vehicle to explore the choices characters make between good and evil. Along with C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings, with whom she maintained a lively correspondence, Sayers used her popular fiction to probe deeper questions. She addressed not only matters of guilt and innocence, sin and redemption, but also the cost of war, the role of the conscience, and the place of women in society.

None of these themes proved any hindrance to spinning a captivating yarn. Her murder mysteries are more reminiscent of Jane Austen than Arthur Conan Doyle, with all the tense interpersonal exploration of the modern novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874866582
Publisher: Plough Publishing House, The
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Series: The Gospel in Great Writers
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 270
Sales rank: 544,592
File size: 623 KB

About the Author

A renowned British writer best known for her detective stories featuring investigator Lord Peter Wimsey, as well as for her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers was educated at Oxford. She became one of the founding members of the Detection Club – with G. K. Chesterton preceding her as president and Agatha Christie succeeding her. Her most enduring works of fiction include Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon, The Nine Tailors, and Murder Must Advertise. She also wrote book-length essays such as The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos, and several acclaimed plays: The Man Born to Be King, The Zeal of Thy House, and The Just Vengeance.
A renowned British writer best known for her detective stories featuring investigator Lord Peter Wimsey, as well as for her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers was educated at Oxford. She became one of the founding members of the Detection Club – with G. K. Chesterton preceding her as president and Agatha Christie succeeding her. Her most enduring works of fiction include Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon, The Nine Tailors, and Murder Must Advertise. She also wrote several acclaimed plays – The Man Born to Be King, The Zeal of Thy House, and The Just Vengeance – and published essays in books such as Creed or Chaos? and The Mind of the Maker.

Date of Birth:

June 13, 1893

Date of Death:

December 17, 1957

Place of Birth:

Oxford, England


B.A., Oxford University, 1915; M.A., B.C.L., 1920

Read an Excerpt


Whose Body?


Published in 1923, Whose Body? is Dorothy L. Sayers's first foray into the writing of detective novels. The memory of the First World War is still fresh, especially to Lord Peter Wimsey, the protagonist of what will become twelve novels and many short stories. Some critics have objected to Wimsey's lighthearted babble, seeing nothing in it but a poor imitation of Bertie Wooster, a creation of Sayers's contemporary P.G. Wodehouse. But already in this first installment, Lord Peter's offland remarks hint at a young author not only adept at religious and literary allusion but also taken with underlying themes of free will, responsibility, and the role of the conscience. For instance, in this fast-paced book full of slapstick humor there are at least thirteen references to Dante. Appropriately, the first words in the book are: "Oh, damn!"

In this scene, Lord Peter Wimsey is in conversation with Detective Parker, who has asked his help with a case.


The detective considered the question, and replied:

"Yes – yes, I do. I know it to be useful, and I am fitted to it. I do it quite well – not with inspiration, perhaps, but sufficiently well to take a pride in it. It is full of variety and it forces one to keep up to the mark and not get slack. And there's a future to it. Yes, I like it. Why?"

"Oh, nothing," said Peter. "It's a hobby to me, you see. I took it up when the bottom of things was rather knocked out for me, because it was so damned exciting, and the worst of it is, I enjoy it – up to a point. If it was all on paper I'd enjoy every bit of it. I love the beginning of a job – when one doesn't know any of the people and it's just exciting and amusing. But if it comes to really running down a live person and getting him hanged, or even quodded, poor devil, there don't seem as if there was any excuse for me buttin' in, since I don't have to make my livin' by it. And I feel as if I oughtn't ever to find it amusin'. But I do."

Parker gave this speech his careful attention.

"I see what you mean," he said.

"There's old Milligan, f'r instance," said Lord Peter. "On paper, nothin' would be funnier than to catch old Milligan out. But he's rather a decent old bird to talk to. Mother likes him. He's taken a fancy to me. It's awfully entertainin' goin' and pumpin' him with stuff about a bazaar for church expenses, but when he's so jolly pleased about it and that, I feel a worm. S'pose old Milligan has cut Levy's throat and plugged him into the Thames. It ain't my business."

"It's as much yours as anybody's," said Parker; "it's no better to do it for money than to do it for nothing."

"Yes, it is," said Peter stubbornly. "Havin' to live is the only excuse there is for doin' that kind of thing."

"Well, but look here!" said Parker. "If Milligan has cut poor old Levy's throat for no reason except to make himself richer, I don't see why he should buy himself off by giving £1,000 to Duke's Denver church roof, or why he should be forgiven just because he's childishly vain, or childishly snobbish."

"That's a nasty one," said Lord Peter.

"Well, if you like, even because he has taken a fancy to you."

"No, but –"

"Look here, Wimsey – do you think he has murdered Levy?"

"Well, he may have."

"But do you think he has?"

"I don't want to think so."

"Because he has taken a fancy to you?"

"Well, that biases me, of course –"

"I daresay it's quite a legitimate bias. You don't think a callous murderer would be likely to take a fancy to you?"

"Well – besides, I've taken rather a fancy to him."

"I daresay that's quite legitimate, too. You've observed him and made a subconscious deduction from your observations, and the result is, you don't think he did it. Well, why not? You're entitled to take that into account."

"But perhaps I'm wrong and he did do it."

"Then why let your vainglorious conceit in your own power of estimating character stand in the way of unmasking the singularly cold-blooded murder of an innocent and lovable man?"

"I know – but I don't feel I'm playing the game somehow."

"Look here, Peter," said the other with some earnestness, "suppose you get this playing-fields-of-Eton complex out of your system once and for all. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that something unpleasant has happened to Sir Reuben Levy. Call it murder, to strengthen the argument. If Sir Reuben has been murdered, is it a game? and is it fair to treat it as a game?"

"That's what I'm ashamed of, really," said Lord Peter. "It is a game to me, to begin with, and I go on cheerfully, and then I suddenly see that somebody is going to be hurt, and I want to get out of it."

"Yes, yes, I know," said the detective, "but that's because you're thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that's childish. If you've any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That's all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn't any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent – what's that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, 'Well played – hard luck – you shall have your revenge tomorrow!' Well, you can't do it like that. Life's not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can't be a sportsman. You're a responsible person."

"I don't think you ought to read so much theology," said Lord Peter. "It has a brutalizing influence."

Lord Peter reached home about midnight, feeling extraordinarily wakeful and alert. Something was jigging and worrying in his brain; it felt like a hive of bees, stirred up by a stick. He felt as though he were looking at a complicated riddle, of which he had once been told the answer but had forgotten it and was always on the point of remembering . ...

He roused himself, threw a log on the fire, and picked up a book which the indefatigable Bunter, carrying on his daily fatigues amid the excitements of special duty, had brought from the Times Book Club. It happened to be Sir Julian Freke's "Physiological Bases of the Conscience," which he had seen reviewed two days before.

"This ought to send one to sleep," said Lord Peter; "if I can't leave these problems to my subconscious I'll be as limp as a rag tomorrow. ..."

Mind and matter were one thing, that was the theme of the physiologist. Matter could erupt, as it were, into ideas. You could carve passions in the brain with a knife. You could get rid of imagination with drugs and cure an outworn convention like a disease. "The knowledge of good and evil is an observed phenomenon, attendant upon a certain condition of the brain-cells, which is removable." That was one phrase; and again:

"Conscience in man may, in fact, be compared to the sting of a hive-bee, which, so far from conducing to the welfare of its possessor, cannot function, even in a single instance, without occasioning its death. The survival-value in each case is thus purely social; and if humanity ever passes from its present phase of social development into that of a higher individualism, as some of our philosophers have ventured to speculate, we may suppose that this interesting mental phenomenon may gradually cease to appear; just as the nerves and muscles which once controlled the movements of our ears and scalps have, in all save a few backward individuals, become atrophied and of interest only to the physiologist."

"By Jove!" thought Lord Peter, idly, "that's an ideal doctrine for the criminal. A man who believed that would never –"

And then it happened – the thing he had been half-unconsciously expecting. It happened suddenly, surely, as unmistakably as sunrise. He remembered – not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything – the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were and instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space. He no longer needed to reason about it, or even to think about it. He knew it. ...

"He called on me, sir, with an anti-vivisectionist pamphlet" – all these things and many others rang together and made one sound, they swung together like bells in a steeple, with the deep tenor booming through the clamour:

"The knowledge of good and evil is a phenomenon of the brain, and is removable, removable, removable. The knowledge of good and evil is removable."

Lord Peter Wimsey was not a young man who habitually took himself very seriously, but this time he was frankly appalled. "It's impossible," said his reason, feebly; "credo quia impossibile," said his interior certainty with impervious self-satisfaction. "All right," said conscience, instantly allying itself with blind faith, "what are you going to do about it?"

Lord Peter realizes that the doctor must have perpetrated the crime, but the horror of the deed and the duty that now rests on his shoulders triggers a flashback – memories of horror and heavy responsibility from the war. It is only after a few days of rest that he is able to return to his work and pass on his intuition to Inspector Sugg of Scotland Yard. The amoral doctor, who at one time was in love with the wife of Sir Reuben Levy, must have switched the murdered body of the financier with that of a medical cadaver.

Parker and Lord Peter were at 110 Piccadilly. Lord Peter was playing Bach and Parker was reading Origen when Sugg was announced.

"We've got our man, sir," said he.

"Good God!" said Peter. "Alive?"

"We were just in time, my lord. We rang the bell and marched straight up past his man to the library. He was sitting there doing some writing. When we came in, he made a grab for his hypodermic, but we were too quick for him, my lord. We didn't mean to let him slip through our hands, having got so far. We searched him thoroughly and marched him off." ...

"He was writing a full confession when we got hold of him, addressed to your lordship. The police will have to have it, of course, but seeing it's written for you, I brought it along for you to see first. Here it is."

He handed Lord Peter a bulky document.

"Thanks," said Peter. "Like to hear it, Charles?"


Accordingly Lord Peter read it aloud.

Dear Lord Peter – When I was a young man I used to play chess with an old friend of my father's. He was a very bad, and a very slow, player, and he could never see when a checkmate was inevitable, but insisted on playing every move out. I never had any patience with that kind of attitude, and I will freely admit now that the game is yours. I must either stay at home and be hanged or escape abroad and live in an idle and insecure obscurity. I prefer to acknowledge defeat.

If you have read my book on "Criminal Lunacy," you will remember that I wrote: "In the majority of cases, the criminal betrays himself by some abnormality attendant upon this pathological condition of the nervous tissues. His mental instability shows itself in various forms: an overweening vanity, leading him to brag of his achievement; a disproportionate sense of the importance of the offence, resulting from the hallucination of religion, and driving him to confession; egomania, producing the sense of horror or conviction of sin, and driving him to headlong flight without covering his tracks; a reckless confidence, resulting in the neglect of the most ordinary precautions, as in the case of Henry Wainwright, who left a boy in charge of the murdered woman's remains while he went to call a cab, or on the other hand, a nervous distrust of apperceptions in the past, causing him to revisit the scene of the crime to assure himself that all traces have been as safely removed as his own judgment knows them to be. I will not hesitate to assert that a perfectly sane man, not intimidated by religious or other delusions, could always render himself perfectly secure from detection, provided, that is, that the crime were sufficiently premeditated and that he were not pressed for time or thrown out in his calculations by purely fortuitous coincidence. ...

Of all human emotions, except perhaps those of hunger and fear, the sexual appetite produces the most violent and, under some circumstances, the most persistent reactions; I think, however, I am right in saying that at the time when I wrote my book, my original sensual impulse to kill Sir Reuben Levy had already become profoundly modified by my habits of thought. To the animal lust to slay and the primitive human desire for revenge, there was added the rational intention of substantiating my own theories for the satisfaction of myself and the world. If all had turned out as I had planned, I should have deposited a sealed account of my experiment with the Bank of England, instructing my executors to publish it after my death. Now that accident has spoiled the completeness of my demonstration, I entrust the account to you, whom it cannot fail to interest, with the request that you will make it known among scientific men, in justice to my professional reputation. ...

Meanwhile, I carefully studied criminology in fiction and fact—my work on "Criminal Lunacy" was a side-product of this activity—and saw how, in every murder, the real crux of the problem was the disposal of the body. As a doctor, the means of death were always ready to my hand, and I was not likely to make any error in that connection. Nor was I likely to betray myself on account of any illusory sense of wrongdoing. The sole difficulty would be that of destroying all connection between my personality and that of the corpse. You will remember that Michael Finsbury, in Stevenson's entertaining romance, observes: "What hangs people is the unfortunate circumstance of guilt." It became clear to me that the mere leaving about of a superfluous corpse could convict nobody, provided that nobody was guilty in connection with that particular corpse. Thus the idea of substituting the one body for the other was early arrived at, though it was not till I obtained the practical direction of St. Luke's Hospital that I found myself perfectly unfettered in the choice and handling of dead bodies. From this period on, I kept a careful watch on all the material brought in for dissection.

My opportunity did not present itself until the week before Sir Reuben's disappearance, when the medical officer at the Chelsea workhouse sent word to me that an unknown vagrant had been injured that morning by the fall of a piece of scaffolding, and was exhibiting some very interesting nervous and cerebral reactions. I went round and saw the case, and was immediately struck by the man's strong superficial resemblance to Sir Reuben. He had been heavily struck on the back of the neck, dislocating the fourth and fifth cervical vertebra and heavily bruising the spinal cord. It seemed highly unlikely that he could ever recover, either mentally or physically, and in any case there appeared to me to be no object in indefinitely prolonging so unprofitable an existence. He had obviously been able to support life until recently, as he was fairly well nourished, but the state of his feet and clothing showed that he was unemployed, and under present conditions he was likely to remain so. I decided that he would suit my purpose very well, and immediately put in train certain transactions in the City which I had already sketched out in my own mind. In the meantime, the reactions mentioned by the workhouse doctor were interesting, and I made careful studies of them, and arranged for the delivery of the body to the hospital when I should have completed my preparations. ...


Excerpted from "The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers"
by .
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Excerpted by permission of Plough Publishing House.
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Table of Contents

Introduction, vii,
1. Whose Body? Conscience, 1,
2. Unnatural Death Sin and Grace, 15,
3. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club Covetousness, 23,
4. Strong Poison Forgiveness, 31,
5. The Documents in the Case Judgment, 43,
6. The Dogma Is the Drama Belief, 52,
7. The Five Red Herrings Pride, 61,
8. Have His Carcase Despair and Hope, 74,
9. Murder Must Advertise Greed, 86,
10. The Nine Tailors Creativity, 97,
11. The Greatest Drama Resurrection, 111,
12. The Mind of the Maker Sacrificial Love, 123,
13. Gaudy Night Work, 139,
14. Are Women Human? Equality, 156,
15. Creed or Chaos? Envy, 168,
16. Unpopular Opinions Faith, 176,
17. The Man Born to Be King Incarnation, 184,
18. King of Sorrows The Cross, 196,
19. The Just Vengeance Images and Symbols, 208,
20. Busman's Honeymoon Time and Eternity, 223,
A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers, 232,
Chronology, 237,
Selected Bibliography, 241,

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