The Case of the Unknowable Human

Dorothy Sayers’s most famous character is a detective who solves crimes with elegance—but he finds the deeper enigmas of human beings always out of reach.

Black-and-white photo of Dorothy Sayers with squiggly lines overlaid
Getty ; The Atlantic

World War I is over. Humanity has gone through hell and emerged strung between merry, hectic giddiness and entrenched, unspeakable grief. And Lord Peter Wimsey—scion of the aristocracy; military hero; buoyant connoisseur of wine, rare books, piano music, and women—is on the hunt for his next beguiling case.

I first encountered Wimsey, the most famous creation of the mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers—whose first novel, Whose Body?, was published a century ago this year—in January 2022. The unexpected, devastating end of a COVID-era romance had left me feeling everything, even boredom, with frightening intensity. I have always turned to detective stories when I feel vulnerable; there is nothing so relaxing as the promise that even the grisliest problem can, with the correct approach, be neatly solved. A collection of Sayers’s stories, Lord Peter: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, had sat on my shelf for years; I picked it up. And it, in turn, plucked me out of the sense that I was trapped on some perilous brink. I set off on a year of obsession, first with Wimsey and his fictional cohort, then with the rest of Sayers’s oeuvre.

But Sayers’s work didn’t comfort me in the way I had initially expected, with clever, complete answers to daunting questions. The power of her writing lies instead in the way she turns the classic promise of a mystery novel on its head. Wimsey solves crimes with elegance and enthusiasm, but true resolution eludes him. The deeper mysteries of the people involved—why they’ve made certain disastrous choices, whether they feel remorse, how their sense of right and wrong got skewed—remain obscure and often, at the end of each investigation, appear even more tangled than before.

This is exactly what soothed me about Sayers’s work: She was preoccupied with the question of how, once you realize you will likely never understand those around you, you might still live a meaningful life. I found in her exploration of that quandary a powerful balm: assurance not that all of the challenges I face will be tidily resolved but rather that existence remains rewarding even if they will not be.

Sayers, born in Oxford in 1893, came of age at a time when the mystery genre, first popularized in the 19th century, was taking a modern turn—its characters were shaped by war and economic deprivation; its mood was less gas lamps and fog and more fast cars and jazz. That period is now thought of as the genre’s golden age. Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, came out in 1920. Josephine Tey, the author of The Daughter of Time, published her first stories in the mid-1920s. By the end of the decade, Dashiell Hammett had begun to popularize hard-boiled detective noirs in the United States.

Although Sayers is best known for her crime writing, detective novels were only a small part of her intellectual and creative output. She was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by Oxford University. She was a translator of Dante and an influential thinker about Anglican theology, the rights of women, and the purpose of education. (She was also at best impolitic about people who weren’t white Christians, especially Jews. “Semitic-looking” men in the money trades regularly crop up in her work; in Whose Body?, one character offers the regrettable opinion, “I’m sure some Jews are very good people.”)

Above all, Sayers was interested in what she called “the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings.” She wrote with a unique appreciation for the fragility of postwar society, and for the members of that society who found it particularly difficult to navigate a world turned nearly unrecognizable.

Her novels—whodunits set in Wimsey’s cosmopolitan London, the remote Scottish countryside, or the fraught academic Eden of Oxford—teem with people who are unbearably, sometimes catastrophically, sensitive to how the world disappoints them. A worker at a coastal hotel, preoccupied with the grand adventures of the characters in his cheap romance novels, easily believes schemers who try to convince him that he is a Russian royal. A Scottish painter picks constant fights with his peers in part because his human interactions feel like no match for the natural beauty he finds in rocks, rivers, and trees. The detective novelist Harriet Vane, Sayers’s other most famous character and Wimsey’s eventual wife, avoids seeking love, fearing that a relationship will subsume her individuality.

Across Sayers’s fiction, characters look for ways to mitigate life’s miseries. As for Wimsey, he searches for relief in his work. He is a detective fit for Sayers’s times, and for ours: a man striving for order in an incomprehensible world. But he never closes his cases with real satisfaction. Instead, he leaves them feeling that humanity is even more complex and maddening than he previously understood, and that justice has been imperfectly allotted.

The paradox that Wimsey finds in his mysteries—although they make his life more complicated, he can’t help seeking them out—is perhaps most evident in The Nine Tailors, which is widely considered to be one of Sayers’s best works. In it, Wimsey solves certain mysteries surrounding the appearance of an anonymous, brutalized body found in England’s eastern fens—whose it was, when and why he died, how he ended up in someone else’s freshly dug grave—but struggles to answer the question of how, precisely, he was killed. Toward the end of the novel, the local drainage system collapses during a mighty storm. The disaster takes lives, ruins homes, and sets a hardship-ridden village up for an especially bad year. But it also shows Wimsey the improbable answer to his question. After the storm, he looks out at the flooded fens. They are beautiful, a mirror to the calmed sky.

By Dorothy Leigh Sayers

It’s no accident that the flood reads as biblical. The work of mystery-solving is in some ways akin to the work of religion. Both provide a method for viewing the violence of life with more curiosity than fear. Sayers, a detective novelist and a theologian, understood that such a framework is essential to finding meaning, even if it’s illusory. There is no logic to the moments of clarity in her work. But with every new case comes the hope that this time, there might be—that resolution is, in fact, possible. This hope, no matter how often it goes unfulfilled, makes Wimsey’s work worthwhile.

That is what I learned from my year with Sayers. It is good to seek, even if you know that you are unlikely to find. In looking clearly at the gruesome truth of the world, you see, also, its beauty.

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