The waters rise…
My house in Oxford flooded this law week, along with most of England, and my family there was ready with inflatable dinghies, Wellington boots, and a cellar cleared of possessions.
So I picked Dorothy Sayersâ€™ The Nine Tailors off the shelf, since it had been a while since I re-read it. And I found that my memories of the book had been accurate: superb and moving descriptions of the land, the church, the bellsâ€”mostly the bells. How is it that a simple paragraph listing the bellsâ€™ names and showing how their tones shift in a peal can make a jaded reader like me choke up?
â€œThe bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom boâ€”tan tin din dan bam bim bo bomâ€”tin tan dan din bim bam bom boâ€¦â€
And then thereâ€™s the flood itselfâ€”â€œAnd over all, the bells tumbled and wrangled, shouting their alarm across the countryâ€â€”and the car chase against the waters, and the drama of retribution. So why does this pleasure have to be pushed around and broken up by a terribly clever but ultimately tedious puzzle?
DLS loved puzzles, and she put a lot of work into those parts of her novels that had ciphers and codes and the like. But in all honesty, they have nothing to do with the stories. It is simply not credible that the highly complex code she gives in Nine Tailors would have been created by the person who does it. It doesnâ€™t fit, either the plot or the character, and it makes the entire book strain and creak with the effort of holding it. A serious crime novel becomes, well, silly.
Sayers herself knew this, deep down. In an introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, she famously wrote that the detective story could never attain â€œthe loftiest level of literary achievement,â€ an admission of failure that many took as the failure of a genre, not of an individual writer. Her essay is known best, not for itself, but for Raymond Chandlerâ€™s reference to it in â€œThe Simple Art of Murder,â€ after which I rather doubt the two writers were ever put in a room together. (Charles Silet has an excellent essay on just this, at http://www.mysterynet.com/books/testimony/chandler.shtml )
Chandlerâ€™s essay is the one that builds to the resounding and oft-quoted paragraphs built around the idea, â€œBut down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.â€
Personally, I think they both got it wrong, although Chandlerâ€™s essay comes off better because he is not apologizing. The detective story Sayers talks about is indeed a limited framework for a story, and itâ€™s only when a writer tries to do more with it than create a puzzle mystery that its limitations become a problem. On the other hand, building a book around a protagonist who fits Chandlerâ€™s â€œuntarnished and fearlessâ€ definition is equally two-dimensional, suited for comic books and comedic novels.
If thereâ€™s a puzzle, it needs to grow organically from the characters, the place, and the crime. If thereâ€™s a hero, he is only heroic if he acts despite his fear and tarnish, not because he lacks those qualities. A man or woman who does not feel fear is pathological, not heroic. A man or woman who lacks tarnish is not only unrealistic, but boring.
But now the flood waters are receding from the streets of Oxford, and I can go back to my summerâ€™s unread books.