Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Documents in the Case

Miss Lemon just loves a good poisoning ... don't you? 

If so, her faithful readers will not want to miss Dorothy L. Sayers's The Documents in the Case (1930) a marvel of a murder mystery told entirely in the correspondence and written statements of the key figures in the case.

George Harrison, a likable chap devoted to his family and his pastimes, is unceremoniously poisoned by a stew of amanita muscaria, a mushroom famous for its deadly venom. See the photo at right and beware not to mistake it for amanita rubescens, or the comparatively benign and edible 'warty caps.' 

The hitch here is that Mr. Harrison was a seasoned gatherer and connoisseur of edible toadstools -- he even published a book on the topic and illustrated it himself. His son, Paul, finds it impossible to believe that his father would make such an amateurish mistake. So he collects the said documents and forwards them to Sir Gilbert Pugh at the Home Office. And thus an inventive and absorbing narrative unfolds, one that doubles as an armchair investigation.

Miss Lemon finds more than just the meta-form of this novel intriguing. Its creation is something of a curiosity, too. The copy Miss Lemon read, published by the New English Library in 1978, clearly names Robert Eustace as co-author. Yet many other editions -- and bibliographies of Sayers's work -- do not.

Eustace, the nom de plume of Eustace Robert Barton, a doctor and novelist in his own right, is credited by some sources with supplying Sayers with the central plot point and supporting medical and technical details that make The Documents in the Case such a marvel.  At the same time, those details are what sometimes interfered with Miss Lemon's willing suspension of disbelief. The technical whys and scientific wherefores are such that Miss Lemon found it hard to believe such minutia could be recalled in a letter or a written statement.  Unless, of course, the author was an inventive novelist himself.

How much of this work is Sayers's? And how much is Eustace's? Literary sleuths will enjoy puzzling out that question as much as they will the case of one very suspicious death.


  1. Wow, that was great. I had no idea. I've yet to read the book, and look forward to it, even with all those little details. :<)

  2. Wonderful blog! Could I be so bold as to suggest that Miss Lemon look into the works of M M Kaye's detective fiction? I think she will enjoy murderous mayhem in exotic locations. :)

  3. So glad to find someone else who thinks this is a fascinating book! I've been re-reading it this week (the slim volume is convenient when riding the bus, etc.), and not for the first time have thought it really demonstrates what an excellent novelist DLS was, even if she herself wasn't entirely pleased with the result. It's so well thought out ... even the format fits with the background commentary on the then-new concept of relativity (we get conflicting stories from different characters' perspectives).

    I pointed out the complexity of the characters to a writer friend, and he agreed that it's very difficult to convey this -- especially for disagreeable traits -- while still enabling the audience to feel some sympathy. (He noted that this is also something that actors love doing, because it's so challenging.) The nicest person in the story (Munting's fiancee) barely appears, and everyone else seems to have traits ranging from being aloof and detached to outright infuriating. The younger Harrison sometimes comes across as a self-righteous jerk ... and yet he's the one who's in the right. (Probably a deliberate contrast with other crime fiction of the era, including Sayers's own Lord Peter stories, where the protagonist is also the investigator ... and the hero.)

    So why do I like this book so much? Maybe because the author allows such a range of voices and perspectives in the story. This might be another reason why it holds up pretty well over time ... amazing that it was written more than 80 years ago, but many of us can probably name people we know who are very similar to the characters. And while some things have changed (social disapproval of divorce -- it's harder to imagine people being forced to quit their jobs today because they've split up), the tension-filled relationship between the Harrisons, where both parties feel they're the wronged one, is all too common.

    In its sweep, and the sometimes-uncomfortable twists given to genre conventions, I can't help thinking that this book reminds me a bit of The Red Right Hand (by Joel Townsley Rogers) even if they are different in many ways -- I don't know if you've had a look at it yet, but it's also one that stays in my memory.