Collecting Mystery & Detective Fiction

by Pamela Palmer

#26, 6 September 2004

A Study of Dorothy L. Sayers

When Clouds of Witness was broadcast on BBC and PBS in the 1972, Dorothy L. Sayers became a literary star all over again. That's when a new generation discovered Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, and Bunter, mimicking readers of the 1920s and 1930s by falling in love with the aristocratic but very human sleuth. The renewed interest focused attention on Sayers' mysteries and other writings. Unlike the original audience, though, modern readers were not content to stop with learning about the writings. They wanted to know all about the author too. And the resulting investigations revealed facts previously held private.

Readers learned that Sayers' life bore little resemblance to those of other Golden Age mystery writers. The only child of an Anglican clergyman, she attended Somerville College, Oxford, taking first class honors in modern languages in 1915 and going on to earn her BA and MA degrees, a rarity for a woman of the time. Unhappy as a schoolteacher, she left the profession to work at Benson's advertising agency, a setting later used in Murder Must Advertise.

After a series of turbulent love affairs and the birth of an illegitimate son, she married Capt. Oswald Atherton Fleming in 1926. They often were unhappy but remained together until his death in 1950. She died in 1957 at her home in Witham.

Sayers' mysteries were published between 1923 and 1937 in both Britain and the United States. According to Catherine Kenney in The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers (Kent State UP, 1990), all her books have remained in print since first publication. (p. 19). But her contributions to literature didn't stop with mystery novels and short stories. Contemporaries knew her equally well for her criticism of the genre; her dramatic works; her translations; and her religious writing. After 1937, she focused primarily on religious writings and translation, gaining both respect for her scholarship and a reputation of increasing eccentricity. Her religious plays, most notably a series about Christ titled The Man Born to Be King, were well received, and her translation of Dante is still considered one of the best.

Readers interested primarily in her life will find Ralph E. Hone's Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography (Kent State University Press, 1979) a good source. Other biographies include Barbara Reynolds' Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (St. Martin's Press, 1993), Such a Strange Lady, by Janet Hitchman (New English Library, 1975) and the authorized biography by James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1981). Despite this growing list, the definitive Sayers biography is yet to be written.

Mystery Novels

When Sayers' first detective novel Whose Body? was published in 1923, readers met Lord Peter Wimsey in the throes of a classic puzzle. He appeared in her best-loved titles, always dapper, scholarly, and proficient in talking piffle.

Sayers' major mysteries include -

Whose Body?, 1923 London; 1923 New York
Clouds of Witness, 1926 London; 1927 New York
Unnatural Death, 1927 London; 1928 New York as The Dawson Pedigree
Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928 London; 1929 New York
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, 1928 London; 1928 New York
The Documents in the Case, by Sayers and Robert Eustace, 1930 London;
     1930 New York
Strong Poison, 1930 London; 1930 New York
The Five Red Herrings, 1931 London; 1931 New York as Suspicious Characters
The Floating Admiral, by Sayers and other members of the Detection Club,
     1931 London; 1932 New York
Have His Carcase, 1932 London; 1932 New York
Ask a Policeman, by Sayers, A. Berkeley, and others, 1933 London; 1933
     New York
Hangman's Holiday, 1933 London; 1933 New York
Murder Must Advertise: A Detective Story, 1933 London; 1933 New York
The Nine Tailors: Changes Rung on an Old Theme in Two Short Touches
     and Two Full Peals
, 1934 London; 1934 New York
Gaudy Night, 1935 London; 1936 New York
Papers Related to the Family of Wimsey,by Sayers and C.W. Scott-Giles
      writing as Matthew Wimsey, 1936 London (privately printed)
Busman's Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions,
     1937 London; 1937 New York

For a list of her writings and brief discussion of her life, see "Dorothy L. Sayers," Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 36. Robert B. Harmon and Margaret A. Burger take more detailed look at contents in their An Annotated Guide to the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers (Garland, 1977). But for collectors and booksellers interested in points, Colleen B. Gilbert's A Bibliography of the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers (Archon, 1978) is the source to use.

Gilbert's description of Whose Body?, first edition, first state runs over forty lines. Here is a portion from page 19 -

By 1990, Kenney noted, "a perceptible hostility toward Dorothy L. Sayers in contemporary England." (p. 18). That attitude (and hefty acquisitions budgets during key times) accounts for the fact that the most complete collections of Sayers' manuscripts are in the United States - at the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin and the Marion E. Wade Collection at Wheaton College (Illinois).

Prices & Venues

If you track selling prices on eBay, there are times you'll doubt that Sayers' books are valuable. Think again. Her detective novels are quite collectible and go for high prices - but usually on other venues. Between mid-July to mid-August 2004, the top money on eBay went for "Dorothy L. Sayers - Busman's Honeymoon - 1st Edition." Selling for 21.10 or about $39, the book was published in London by Gollancz in 1937. This was the sole Sayers title to sell for over $30 during the four weeks.

When books from Lackritz collection went up for auction at Christie's New York in 2002, though, the prices differed markedly. Gaudy Night (London, 1935) vied with an advance proof of Whose Body? for the top price with both selling for $900. Gaudy Night is described as "1st issue. In dj with edgewear & orange belly band; endleaves foxed." (American Book Prices Current, 2003, p. 855).

In the manuscript category, Sayers' "Typescript, unfinished novel Thrones, Dominations. [c. 1937]. 138 pp. 4to. With holograph emendations. Frayed & duststained. Also with 2 carbon copies ..." went for a whopping 6,000 in December 2002. Manuscripts and archives related to Sayers commanded similar high prices at Sotheby's auction in 2000.

R. B. Russell's Guide to First Edition Prices (Firebird, 1999) shows the highest first edition price for a Sayer's first edition was for Whose Body?, the "Boni & Liveright (U.S.), 1923 (first issue with 'Inc.' after Boni & Liveright on title page)" at 3,000. He lists several of her other mysteries are in the 1000-2500 range. Allen and Patricia Ahearns's Collected Books: The Guide to Values (Putnam, 2002) shows similar high prices.

Sellers' ambitious pricing is evident on abebooks.com, with fourteen mystery-related items listed above $2000. The top-priced item is "A Remarkable Archive of Material Relating to the Detection Club", an archive including "The Order of Solemn Installation ..." in Sayers' hand and many other pieces related to her and other luminaries of the Detection Club. Hangman's Holiday is the highest-priced mystery novel; the 1933 volume published by Gollancz is described as "A very good copy in a dust jacket with a browned spine with a thumbnail-sized chip at the bottom. Very scarce in dust jacket." [abebooks.com, August 2, 2004]

If you are interested in copies of the bibliographies, biographies, and pricing guides mentioned, search Amazon on BookThink's BookSearch. For used copies, search the Fetchbook box on that page.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark
editor@bookthink.com

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