Friday, 17 April 2009

Forgotten Book - The Documents in the Case


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.

13 comments:

vegetableduck said...

Let's face it: no Lord Peter was bound to hurt this book's long-term popularity. Also, I wonder if the letter format really was the best way to go about it? I think it may be emotionally distancing for people. Sayers was very intrigued with the epistolatory form at this time though.

Martin Edwards said...

The suggestion that the letter format might put readers off is interesting. I like it, but what do other people think about it?

maxine said...

Thanks for reminding me of this book - I remember enjoying it very much when I read it probably at about 12 years of age. But, in keeping with the title of your post, I had forgotten all about it until now! I quite liked the letter format at the time, and it was rather a popular form in Victorian times and subsequently, though I suppose it is a bit out of fashion nowadays. I think it can be effective if done well. I certainly have read some books in the past few years that have used the correspondence form quite effectively for part of the book, but I am afraid I can't locate those in my mind either. Sorry.

David Cranmer said...

I have never read anything by Sayers other than Lord Peter Wimsey. Interesting how a successful series character can snuff out the other books.

Dorte H said...

In my opinion the letter format is off-putting. Difficult to explain why as I have enjoyed several ´diary´ thrillers, but so far I have never read an epistolary novel that I liked. I think there is a lot back-and-forth which slows down the pace.

If you should try the genre, I´d probably give it a second chance, but don´t do it for my sake ;)

Jilly said...

I like the letter format it gives a different feel to the whole thing. I've read other books in the epistolary form and I do enjoy them - same with novels which consist mainly of e-mails. They give a feeling of immediacy to the story. I can't off hand thing of any crime stories which have been written in this format - either e-mail or letter.

Fiz said...

It's one of my favourite Sayers novels.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I know people don't fully appreciate Dorothy today, but I couldn't get enough of her in my youth. Harriet Vane was my hero(ine).

Juri said...

There's a novel by Walt Sheldon, called GOLD BAIT (Gold Medal 1973). I think it must be the only hardboiled epistolary novel published as a PBO. If there are others, I'd gladly hear about them. In this book, the epistolary form works very well, it's entertaining and pulls you in quickly as the reader.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for these comments. I am very interested in the contrasting views on epistolary fiction - a subject I'm tempted to return to in a future post.
Fiz, I'm glad to hear there are others who like this particular book.
Juri - thank you, I don't know GOLD BAIT at all, can you tell us any more aboutit?

Juri said...

Umm... sorry, Martin, I was a bit too hasty. When I come to think about GOLD BAIT, it has to be closer to a diary novel, not "only" an epistolary one. There are lots of letters that form bits of the narration in the book, though.

It's been years since I read GOLD BAIT, but I remember enjoying it. It's about a hunt for a golden treasure in bottom of the sea. There is an American adventurer, who gets mixed up in international intrigue. There are some Chinese agents mixed in. As in all Sheldon (from those I've read) there's an amount of melancholy in the narrative and also some expertise on Oriental matters. (Sheldon wrote a paperback series set in Japan in the late fifties and I believe he must've spent some time in there. Sheldon is surely a forgotten figure now and should merit at least a post on this fine series. And lots of reprints.)

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks, Juri. I must admit I've never heard of Sheldon, so the info is all the more useful, and as you say, he falls into the 'forgotten' category very neatly.

Juri said...

Sheldon was one of those guys who started out in the pulps in the fourties and then switched to paperbacks in the fifties. I think he did also lots of science fiction.