Never Mind the Villain!: Dorothy Sayers and Point of View

 Posted by Helen Currie Foster

Okay, you know writers have to make choices. I began writing the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries from a single point of view—Alice’s. As you all know, whether in first person or third, making this choice in an amateur sleuth mystery requires the writer to figure out how the protagonist can acquire and understand all the necessary clues.

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers by John Doubleday, located on Newland Street, Witham, England. By GeneralJohnsonJameson [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
The magnificent Dorothy Sayers instead adopted a disciplined omniscience in her eleven Peter Wimsey mysteries (1923-1937). In the first, Whose Body (1923), we meet not only the main character but his companion investigators: his unflappable butler Mervyn Bunter and Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, who carry through the entire series (with Harriet Vane appearing in the fifth mystery). These characters both enrich the books and add structural strength. Parker provides the window to the police, while Bunter possesses useful technical skills (photography, testing for arsenic). Furthermore, the companion sleuths (and others) shed light on Wimsey’s character by their own thoughts and observations—necessary because Wimsey, though a chatterbox, is notoriously introverted, plagued by his war experience.

Omniscience also gives Sayers flexibility in setting the opening scene.  In Strong Poison (1931), after the bewigged judge’s dry summation of the evidence against Harriet Vane, we’re privy to reactions not only from Wimsey but also newspaper reporters and the public. Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) opens with letters describing Wimsey’s marriage to Harriet Vane, written to or from unknown society matrons, Peter’s butler Mervyn Bunter, Peter’s prickly sister-in-law Helen, and Peter’s mother. These multiple points of view enliven both openings.

But after such openings Sayers typically narrows point of view to the clue-finders. In Strong Poison we’re mainly in Wimsey’s head, feeling his growing emotional involvement: “Wimsey walked down the dingy street with a feeling of being almost lightheaded.” “For the first time, too, he doubted his own power to carry through what he had undertaken.” Sayers lets us abandon Wimsey to accompany his “team.” We follow the resourceful Bunter into the kitchen of a London mansion where we watch him toast crumpets while eliciting critical evidence from the cook and housemaid:

By what ingratiating means Mr. Bunter had contrived to turn the delivery of a note into the acceptance of an invitation to tea was best known to himself…He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody…Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within.

Later our heart pounds with that of Miss Murchison, whom Wimsey has persuaded to take a job as temporary secretary in order to burgle a lawyer’s safe.  “Miss Murchison felt a touch of excitement in her well-regulated heart.” We follow the elderly Katharine Climpson to a village where, she’s promised Wimsey, she must somehow find and read a dying woman’s will: “In a single moment of illumination, Miss Climpson saw her plan complete and perfect in every detail.” And so do we.

Given their moments in the sun these characters develop richly. We feel Miss Murchison’s excited terror as she presses the panel that reveals the safe in the suspect’s office. We feel Miss Climpson’s anxious discipline as she waits for the kettle to steam enough to loosen the glue on the envelope holding the will. We love Bunter’s roast chicken recipe and ability to extract critical detail from the housemaid and cook. And when Wimsey celebrates their information the reader enjoys the teamwork as well:

(Wimsey) “Have you brought us news, Miss Murchison? If so, you have come at the exact right moment…Have you had tea? or will you absorb a spot of something?”

Miss Murchison declined refreshment.

(Wimsey) “Tell us the worst, Miss Murchison.”

Miss Murchison needed no urging. She told her adventures, and had the pleasure of holding her audience enthralled from the first word to the last.

In the earlier (pre-Harriet Vane) Clouds of Witness (1926) we travel to Paris with Inspector Parker, in search of a cat-shaped diamond brooch. After a fruitless day, Parker decides to buy his unmarried older sister “some filmy scrap of lace underwear which no one but herself would ever see.” He finds help in one Parisian shop: “The young lady had been charmingly sympathetic, and, without actually insinuating anything, had contrived to make her customer feel just a little bit of a dog. He felt that his French accent was improving.” Somehow we like Parker even more—a good thing, since later in Clouds of Witness he’ll propose to Wimsey’s sister.

In Have His Carcase (1932), the initial point of view is all Harriet Vane’s: she discovers the grisly body. Then Wimsey arrives, and we follow him as he tracks down alibis (“Wimsey shuddered at the thought of roast mutton and cabbage on a red-hot June day”). At the end, we’re  with Bunter as he doggedly trails a suspect to find the key evidence, then sees the back of a man leaving the movie theater (“He had not followed that back through London for five days without knowing every line of it”). By the conclusion we’ve enjoyed the inner workings of all three minds—Harriet’s, Peter’s, Bunter’sin a way we couldn’t with a single point of view.

However, there’s one point of view Sayers refuses to share, despite her omniscience. Sayers never admits us to the killer’s point of view. We hear dialogue from the killer; particularly where a death was unintended, we hear the killer explain what happened; but Sayers bars us from following the killer’s thoughts.

She’s taken a position consistent with the first rule of The Detection Club which Sayers helped found in 1930: “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.” (Indeed, she even follows this rule for the accused killer in Clouds of Witness; he’s innocent, but still we never hear his thoughts.)

Many mysteries break this rule (see, e.g., Tony Hillerman’s The Ghost Way (1984), where we enter Vaggan’s mind), sometimes to great effect.

But it’s a rule Sayers kept.

On May 19, 2018, at our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime meeting, Ed Martin  told in fascinating detail how he helped determine who murdered Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son John, her adopted daughter Robin, and Danny Fry, a co-conspirator in their murders. As he ended, Ed mentioned that the murderer David Waters had told of a nightmare in which he saw Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s hand sticking up from the grave. Ed said, “No conscience, but he had a nightmare!”

That comment intrigued me. It opened an unwelcome door into the villain’s thoughts. It was already too hard to understand the murders in the first place. Hearing about the nightmare made the O’Hairs’ deaths more painful. And yet—the murderer had had that nightmare. Maybe that’s a different story.

***

Photographic images of covers of Strong Poison and Clouds of Witness taken from personal copies.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery seriesGHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, and GHOST DAGGER. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Never Mind the Villain!: Dorothy Sayers and Point of View

  1. I’ve only written sword-and-sorcery fantasy and historical fiction, so I didn’t know about the detective club’s edict of not writing in the POV of the killer when writing a murder mystery. I think that rule is broken quite a bit nowadays, since we seem to be fascinated with how a killer’s mind works. When I did my fantasy trilogy, I wrote in the POV of multiple characters, but only one per scene. I let readers into the inner thoughts of my good characters as well as my villains.

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  2. I never thought there was a rule like that either. I think it would depend on the story whether to share the killer’s POV. I’ve seen it done and would ask if the story is better or more mysterious with or without. Interesting blog!

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  3. I don’t write fiction so I have never had to consider how to plot things out. Those that write mystery novels have the extra challenge of linking everything together so it makes sense. I mostly write about my life and nature, so things don’t always make sense, they just are.

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  4. I love Sayers’ last two Wimsey books. But, she broke all kinds of other rules writing them. For instance, she broke the rule about ending the book with the capture of the criminal in Busman’s Honeymoon.

    Thrillers frequently give you the killer’s thoughts– think of the Lincoln Rhyme stories by Deaver. The author creates tension and suspense by showing the developing cat and mouse game between the protagonist and the villain.

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  5. I met Lord Peter Wimsey when Mystery! on PBS ran the series with Ian Carmichael. (I love Carmichael’s Wimsey. Can’t help it.) Then I read the books. But they were entertainment; I’ve never gone deeper than that. Thanks for the lesson.

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