Published in 1930, this is Sayers’ only novel not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. While I don’t rate it as highly as the Wimsey stories – which I love – it was very enjoyable and I’m glad to have re-read it after many years.
The setting is the London suburb of Bayswater in 1928, where the Harrisons live in a tall Victorian house with their lady-help, Miss Agatha Milsom. When the story begins, their top floors are newly leased to two young men, an artist and an aspiring novelist. Harrison is a fussy, mild-mannered accountant – sounds perfect for a 1920s murderer – and his wife Margaret is much younger. She’s wonderfully described as a suburban vamp with lots of S.A.
As the title implies, this is an epistolary novel, not my favourite structure but it is addictive. No chapter breaks make it tempting to read just one more entry, which leads to many. I find the same effect when reading published diaries. I enjoyed seeing characters and events from several viewpoints, showing the vast inconsistencies in what we all call the truth.
The novel is divided in two parts and includes statements among letters. It reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, where a time period is pieced together and analysed in an attempt to unravel a mystery. It’s an effective means of hooking the reader. You’re formally challenged to play detective from the opening page.
We don’t know the nature of the murder for some considerable time – or we wouldn’t but for the blurb. While I understand the publishers’ need for hooks to tempt buyers, I wish they didn’t give away so much – one of my serial rants. I suspect the first readers in 1928 began knowing less about what was going on than we do today.
We are told early on that Harrison is an expert on fungi. Say no more – all keen Golden Age readers know what that means! A keen forager and cook, he’s writing a book on the subject, accompanied by his water-colour illustrations. Poisoning is a deliciously sinister method of dispatch. For a writer it’s full of possibilities, as devious as deadly, not requiring brute force or even the presence of the murderer. So handy for arranging an alibi and for the more squeamish killer. It’s worth noting that The Documents In The Case is Sayers’ following novel after Strong Poison.
One of the novel’s strengths is its lively characterisation, shown especially in Miss Milsom. In reality, how terrible it must have been to be a ‘lady-help,’ existing in an uneasy limbo between family and servant. Miss Milsom is engaged partly as a companion to Mrs Harrison. She sits with the family and is treated as a sort of distant relative but her duties include the cooking, which she does badly.
You could say Miss Milsom is a great positive-thinker, self-help books being as popular then as now. She busies herself in enthusiasms including handicrafts, littering the flat with her half-finished work. A letter to her sister explains:
I am experimenting on some calendars, made like the old-fashioned tinsel pictures, with the coloured paper-wrappers off chocolate creams. Some of the designs are simply beautiful.
Miss Milsom is also obsessed with sexual repression. It was fashionable at the time to read Freud, consult a ‘nerve doctor’ and worry about the state of one’s glands. Mental and physical health, exercise, faddy diets, dodgy sects and gurus were all popular preoccupations in the inter-war years. Though presumably not among people struggling with the Means Test and the Depression.
She consults these psycho-analytical quacks, who encourage her to attach an absurd importance to her whims and feelings, and to talk openly at the dinner-table about things which, in my (doubtless old-fashioned) opinion, ought only to be mentioned to doctors.
In several of her novels, Sayers satirises neurotic middle-aged spinsters seeking self-expression. Wickedly funny, though it could be argued her caricatures are unkind. It’s a mistake for us to read history through a filter of modern values. These were women who perhaps never thought of a career other than marriage and motherhood. And their best chance of happiness was lost on the Western Front.
You can sense Sayers’ impatience with foolish women who didn’t make a fulfilling life for themselves, above all with useful work. A glimpse of the theme she developed with Harriet Vane, culminating in Gaudy Night. At the time of writing The Documents In The Case, Sayers was working in the advertising agency which inspired Murder Must Advertise, a vivid portrayal of office life in the thirties.
The young artist and writer here are part of the London Bohemian scene which is a popular Golden Age setting, often Ngaio Marsh territory. Sayers uses this in parts of Strong Poison and The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club. A female character in The Documents In The Case contrasts with Miss Milsom as a level-headed, hard-working novelist, rather like Harriet Vane.
There’s a very good sense of place, both in the dull, respectable streets of Bayswater and when the novel shifts to the wild countryside near the Dartmoor village of Manaton. When we lived in Devon, this was one of my favourite parts of the Moor for walking. Sayers really captures the flavour of the landscape and its people. It’s a pleasure to read about passengers travelling the long-axed, country branch-line from Newton Abbot which climbs on to the Moor via Bovey Tracey. (Parts of the old railway line survive for walking).
Earlier editions credit Robert Eustace as co-author, though new editions have dropped his name, even from the front matter. This was the pseudonym of Dr. Eustace Barton, a medical doctor who also wrote thrillers. He suggested a crucial part of the plot and helped with the forensic side.
Overall, I don’t think The Documents In The Case works with the brilliance of a Wimsey novel. It feels expermental somehow and an epistolary form is bound to feel slightly disjointed. But the characterisation, atmosphere and a clever puzzle make it well worth reading. And as a glimpse of its time, the social detail of a vanished, pre-war England is invaluable.