The author of my latest entry in Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is very definitely not forgotten. Dorothy L. Sayers’ reputation as one of the greatest British detective writers is secure. But The Documents in the Case is a book which doesn’t often seem to be discussed these days – something that surprises me, because it is an unorthodox and original piece of work.
For sure, it’s a very different book from the classic Wimseys. For a start, a co-author is named alongside Sayers. This is Robert Eustace, a shadowy figure who collaborated with a number of crime writers (most notably with Edgar Jepson on the classic short story, ‘The Tea Leaf’), supplying scientific expertise. And science plays a very important part in the story.
There are a number of intriguing themes in the book, but what has always fascinated me is that this is an epistolary novel. The story told through letters by various hands appears to be relatively commonplace but, bit by bit, a complex set of relationships is presented. I first read this as a teenager. At the time, I admired the skill with which Sayers conveyed information through correspondence, and I still do (I’ve flirted with variations of the device in one or two short stories, and I plan to do so again in the future.)
Like many innovative works, this one has a few flaws. There are not too many likeable characters, and the epistolary form does impose some constraints. But Sayers was a very fine letter writer indeed – examples of her mastery of that dying art are easy to come by, as five volumes of her letters have been published – and she deploys her skill to impressive effect here. In some ways, this book is as much a landmark in the history of the genre as the best Lord Peter Wimsey novels.