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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Parallel Points in Agatha and Dorothy

Caution: Spoilers ahead! If you have not read Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and do not want any clues, do not read this post!

Agatha Christie
People on social media are doing a lot of themed contributions. There are picture themes for Instagram on different days of the week, and before that there were Throwback Thursdays for Twitter and Facebook which still go on and on.

But well before any of these platforms could have been dreamed up, there were two of the brightest mystery authors of the twentieth century, sitting down to tea one day and discussing what might be a fun situation for a mystery.

“I know,” said one to the other. “What about a murder where the dentist is the victim, only he’s not the real victim?”

Agatha Christie wrote One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in which Hercule Poirot goes to the dentist and his dentist is murdered shortly after; only of course, the dentist was not the actual target. One of his patients had turned up at a very inopportune time and place for the villain.

Dorothy L. Sayers and Eric the Skull
Meanwhile, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote “In the Teeth of the Evidence” in which Lord Peter Wimsey goes to the dentist and his dentist tells him he has to identify another dentist’s burnt corpse by its dental records. Only, of course, the murdered dentist turns out to be somebody else altogether.

The two authors must have once agreed that house parties and crime go together like . . . well, tea and crumpets. “We must have a stolen pearl necklace where the only suspects are the members of the house party and the hiding place is unique.”

So of course Agatha Christie went off and wrote the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford short story, “The Affair of the Pink Pearl” in which the necklace clasp breaks and its owner puts it down on a side table during a game of bridge. The large, famous pink pearl pendant is taken off the necklace, and its hiding place is a clever surprise.

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a story in which Lord Peter is one of the guests only because of “a touching spirit of unreasonable hope” on the part of the parents of a single young woman, who has a necklace of famous pearls, which of course she takes off during the house party games and lays down on a table. (Why do owners of fantastically valuable pearl necklaces take them off before the party is over, and if they must, why lay them on any old table?) The hiding place for these stolen pearls is quite ingenious, discoverable only by the coincidence of a woman’s taste for modern d├ęcor and the detective’s ability to find the dropped clue exactly in the place where his eyes would be directed to the pearls.

When the two authors agreed that it would be a great thing to have a poisoner build up an immunity to a poison in order to do away with a rich relative while seemingly innocently partaking of the same deadly meal, Dorothy Sayers wrote the amazingly complicated and ingenious novel Strong Poison. But before that, Agatha Christie used the idea in her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford collection, Partners in Crime, for the story “The House of Lurking Death.”

Agatha Christie’s “The Unbreakable Alibi” may have contained two ideas that Dorothy Sayers chose to put into separate stories. The previously unknown twin is also in Sayers’ “The Image in the Mirror.” The siblings who collude to make the detective think they are somewhere they could not possibly be is also in Sayers’ “Absolutely Elsewhere.” All three stories are, as I keep saying, the work of genius.

The authors must have had one of their brainstorming sessions around Christmastime, for Christmas and crime are another of those natural pairs like the tea and crumpets. In Agatha Christie’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,” Poirot finds a royal ruby hidden in a traditional pudding intended to be eaten at the new year, but an accident brings it to the dining room for Christmas. The Dorothy Sayers short story already referenced, “The Necklace of Pearls,” features as its setting a country house Christmas with all its Victorian-Edwardian trappings.

Agatha Christie decided to complicate the Christmas theme by adding a supernatural element, a puzzle element, and a mysterious will, for a story with everything packed in it! The Christmas setting in “The Clergyman’s Daughter” finds Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence spending the holiday investigating a poltergeist in a house that a mother and daughter have inherited without the money from the estate to allow them to keep it. The solution to where the money from the will ended up is solved when they find the old lady’s papers with puzzle anagrams in them.

The Sayers story along similar lines is “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will,” minus the Christmas setting and without anything supernatural. Lord Peter finds a crossword puzzle in the tile work of a pond, and the clues in the papers in the attic that lead to the correct will.

But Sayers does put the supernatural together with a startling will in “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention,” in which Lord Peter sees a ghost carriage pulled by four headless white horses.

Both authors spoofed spiritualism and mediums in their novels Strong Poison and Dumb Witness. They must have had a good time discussing all the frauds and their practices in preparation for writing those books.

Supernatural dreams received treatment by both authors too. Dorothy L. Sayers put a seemingly prophetic dream in the story “Striding Folly,” which enables the innocent man to escape being framed. Agatha Christie’s story, “The Dream,” has Poirot listening to a man tell him he has a recurring dream in which he shoots himself, and the dream seems to come true a week later.

The ladies must have agreed that a costume ball, with all its possibilities for mistaken identity by the witnesses where there is a murder, would be a great setting. Accordingly, Agatha Christie wrote “The Affair at the Victory Ball,” giving her six main characters at the ball the costumes of Commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, Punchinello and Punchinella, Pierrot and Pierette, and Columbine. Ten years later Dorothy Sayers published “The Queen’s Square,” in which somebody says to Lord Peter, “You make a splendid Jack of Diamonds, though. Such a good idea of Lady Deverill’s, to make everybody come as a game. It cuts out all those wearisome pierrots and columbines.” !! Was this a criticism of Agatha Christie’s costumed ball? No, right away a man appears costumed  as a billiard table and we’re told he can’t rest except to perch briefly against one of the taller radiators which are too hot to sit on. It’s too funny to resist. In both stories, the witnesses think they see a person whose costume they know, and in both cases, they are mistaken.

There are more stories and parallels and similarities, but this will do to give you the idea. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the treatments in each of the authors’ stories. No doubt with the incredibly prolific Christie, there are multiple examples of many of the ideas where Dorothy Sayers, ceasing to write mysteries much after World War II, limited herself to one treatment of each idea.

They were friends, we know. They were both members of the Detection Club, Sayers serving as president from 1947 to her death, and Christie serving as president immediately after her. But were there any exchanges of ideas over the tables? No doubt.

Detection Club Oath, sworn with one hand on Eric the Skull:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
I do.
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
I do.
Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
I do.
Will you honour the King’s English?
I will.

“If you fail to keep your promises may other writers anticipate your plots, may your publishers do you down in your contracts, may total strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and may your sales continually diminish. Amen.”

1 comment:

  1. How very delightful! I have been reading the varied series' by Joyce and Jim Lavene. One is set in a permanent Renesance Faire Village in North Carolina with a college professor who is working at the village as an apprentice to different craftsmen for her doctoral thesis. She ends up involved in solving a murder every summer. Another is the series about 2 New England witches who want to retire, but murder keeps preventing them from finding someone to take over their herb and magic shop. And the third series is set in an Outer Banks village in North Carolina where everyone is descended from one pirate or another and the family ghosts wander through periodically. Very tongue in cheek.


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