Detective fiction is one of the most popular literary genres in the present days and deals with various significant issues which have been objects of many scholarly researches throughout the years. The Great Britain introduced the first detective stories in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached the Golden Age in the period of the 1920s and 1930s, which this thesis puts its main focus on. One of the main contributors to the Golden Age of the Detective Fiction was Dorothy L. Sayers introducing her most popular detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, in Whose Body? (1923), and promoting him to a Great Detective in her later novels, such as her masterpiece, Murder Must Advertise (1933).
This thesis discusses various aspects of the genre of detective story, pointing out special contribution of Dorothy L. Sayers to it. Also, it considers her personal life and writing career, showing some features typical for her style of writing. The thesis focuses mainly on analysing the character of Sayers’ Great Detective, connecting him to other popular Great Detectives of the Great Britain, and pointing out the evolutionary changes in his behaviour throughout the two novels consulted, gradually making him a role model for a typical British gentleman.
The first chapter deals with the development of the detective story writing, analysing it through the most inspiring writers at the creation of the genre. Here, an overview of three detective characters is given; Wilkie Collins’s Walter Hartright, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Later, the Golden Age of detective fiction is introduced, where mostly British woman writers dominated; among these was Agatha Christie with one of her Great Detectives – Hercule Poirot and Dorothy L. Sayers with Lord Peter Wimsey. The chapter provides a brief comparison of all these investigators of crime, accentuating the personality of Wimsey, and Sayers’s position among these writers. Two other representatives of the Golden Age Detective Fiction, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, are also briefly mentioned.
The next chapter is devoted to Sayers’s biography; it mentions her education, various professions and relationships with men. These and other situations in her personal life are linked to the creation of her Great Detective, who also shares some life experience with her, such as living during the First World War. This chapter also reveals the individuality of Sayers’s writing which provides the development of detective fiction by going against certain standards of writing in that period of time; in particular, making the characters of her novels at least equally interesting as the plot. The intensity of her style of writing justifies her position among the most influential authors in the Golden Age of detective fiction.
The main and final chapter focuses on the appearance and personality of Sayers’s most known hero, Lord Peter Wimsey and examines the growth of this character between the two novels discussed in this work. In the early book, he is constructed out of idealistic and rather conventional elements, whereas in the later book, the transformation of this Great Detective into a much more serious figure, present in the second book mentioned, has been observed. Wimsey’s strong skills as a detective are also analysed, always supporting his aristocratic background. The way he investigates, uncovers the mystery and handles the people involved with the case is explored as well, considering both of the novels examined. Moreover, there is a preview of other characters which are frequently engaged in the investigation with Wimsey, and the often changing relationship between him and these characters is illustrated.
Detective fiction in Britain developed from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and introduced many characters of the Great Detective with differences in their behaviour, distinctive methods and collaboration with certain companions. Also, a diversity of the environment in which the detectives solve their cases, as well as different social strata, in which they work, have been considered since the very beginning of the genre through the Golden Age, until the present days. Although this literary genre did not seem that significant to scholars and literary critics at first, it was subsequently revealed that detective stories represent a very peculiar and unique genre. There are a number of subgenres of detective fiction, such as whodunit, which seemed to be the most common one in Britain, hard-boiled fiction, connected with American crime fiction, historical crime fiction, crime thriller, etc. The early development of the detective story in Britain is usually connected with authors such as Wilkie Collins, G.K. Chesterton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The novel The Woman in White (1859) by Wilkie Collins is generally considered a predecessor of a typical detective novel and is often even classified as a detective novel, comprehending many features typical of the genre. Its hero, Walter Hartright, holds some of the characteristics important for a detective in the classical detective story and some later crime books as well. Also, Hartright preserves a mystery of his own throughout the story; his secret love for Laura, not expressed, however, right away out of “propriety”, by which his character is strongly influenced; “Hartright behaves correctly during the remainder of his abbreviated stay at Limmeridge House, though his heart is under cruel ‘restraint’” (Meckier 112). This characteristic also interferes with his research methods and deducing skills in some respect, since he believes it would be improper to wear a disguise while investigating the crimes of Sir Percival. On the contrary, the character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, does not use any direct form of disguise but is in hiding and investigates in private most of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), which is still considered a classic among detective stories and many characters of the Great Detective follow the example of Sherlock Holmes in many ways. In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Blue Cross (1910), the disguise is actually used in reverse, where the criminal is masked, in order to keep the reader in the dark and distracted from him almost until the complete resolution of the story. The detective character of Father Brown, however, investigates in private, too, by letting the reader, as well as the seemingly inspecting police officer, believe he is being outwitted by the criminal.
The diversity of investigative methods of the different individualities has been in some respect connected to their personalities from the beginning. For instance, in Sherlock Holmes’s case, the “bizarre crime is not only conceived with ingenuity, it exudes the mystery and horror of the supernatural” (Kissane and Kissane 353). But while even some educated and reasonable men start to doubt their own minds and begin to believe in a ghost-hound murderer, Holmes, together with his investigating partner Dr. Watson, always knows there must be something else behind the case, despite not knowing any details by then. According to Kissane and Kissane, Doyle uses this to “dramatize the struggle of scientific reason against superstition and irrationality” (355). Being one step ahead of everyone, especially of the reader, is an exemplary attribute of any good detective character, present in all of these early novels, and preserved in the later years, as well. Their thoughts could be sometimes hard to follow, leaving their partners, as well as the reader, rather confused. Still, these helpers or assistants are always loyal and faithfully follow the instructions of their prominent associate. Father Brown, for instance, is seemingly aware of all aspects of the case since the beginning; when the police inspector, seeking the criminal, is following them both, Brown “has already outwitted the criminal and changed his own role from that of victim to manipulator” (Hayes and Tololyan 398), proving his masterful nature. Furthermore, Sherlock Holmes is unwilling to tell anyone about his full plans and works on the case secretly, proving his unique intelligence and ability to solve most of the case by himself.
The use of partners, or getting help with the investigation, changes within the novels. In the first detective stories, the sleuths are mostly working on their own, relying just on themselves, as it is with Walter Hartright and Father Brown. This shows the authority and independence of the detective characters, however, with the gain of a companion, the character is given a contrasting personality to help him deal with the crime from a different, more ordinary perspective than his genius mind does. For instance, Dr. Watson is rather impulsive, “a man of action”, with the instinct “always to do something energetic”, and wants to arrest the suspect immediately (Doyle, 160), whereas Holmes is more patient, calm and waiting for the right moment. Besides, the partner is usually at a comparable level of understanding of the case as the reader, keeping the reader more eager to uncover the mystery while the Great Detective is already familiar with most of its vital clues.