The Influence of Dorothy Sayers and Peter & Harriet
The great discussion following my recent blog on The Scarlet Pimpernel inspired me blog about another series of books that have had a huge influence on me as a writer and on my Charles & Mélanie books in particular. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books featuring Peter and Harriet Vane.
My mom introduced me to British “Golden Age” (twenties and thirties) mysteries when I was a teenager. They became some of my favorite books. In particular, those with an ongoing love story/marriage that unfolded across various books–Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy, and above all Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Typically for me, I read the books completey out of order. I started with Have His Carcase, the second of the four full books featuring Harriet which Sayers wrote (there have since been two continuations written by Jill Paton Walsh). I knew they ended up together, but I so wanted to read more. It was a Sunday, so the library wasn’t open. I still remember how sweet my father was, driving me to a bookstore that day where the only book I could find was the fourth, Busman’s Honeymoon. Then I read Strong Poison, where Peter and Harriet meet (Harriet is on trial for murdering her lover), and finally Gaudy Night.
There’s so much I love in these books. The finely drawn characterization. The interplay between the mysteries and the developing love story stretched out over multiple books. The nuanced look at the development of a relationship (which doesn’t stop evolving with marriage). The difficulties, particularly for a woman, of maintaining your own identity in a relationship. The risk of trusting and letting down emotional barriers. The wit and passion of the two main characters. The emotions which are all the more intense for being kept in careful restraint for so long. Strong Poison starts sets up Peter and Harriet and their emotional conflict perfectly. Have His Carcase is a wonderfully intricate mystery (probably my favorite of the four as a mystery) while at the same time revealing more layers to both Peter and Harriet and moving the relationship along. Gaudy Night is one of my all time favorite love stories. Purely as a mystery it’s not my favorite, but the thematic interplay of the mystery and the love story is brilliant and the character development is fascinating. Busman’s Honeymoon is a wonderful look at a developing marriage, by turns funny, wrenching, and heart-stoppingly romantic, and also a great study of the darker side of investigating a murder and proving someone guilty.
I’ve always loved romantic detective partnerships. And I find they offer wonderful scope for developing a story. The twists and turns of the mystery can echo the twists and turns of the relationship, the theme of the mystery can echo the theme of the issues the hero and heroine are confronting. The same elements that have me rereading the Peter and Harriet books have me rewatching episodes of The X-Files to analyze Mulder and Scully’s evolving relationship.Of course Dorothy Sayers has been a huge influence on me as a writer. There’s a code-breaking scene in Secrets of a Lady that’s an homage to the wonderful code-breaking scene in Have His Carcase. And I started Beneath a Silent Moon with an image of the final scene between Charles and Mélanie, which was inspired by the final scene between Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeymoon.
Who else is a Sayers fan? (I know Lauren is, because we've talked about the books.) Writers, what books that particularly inspired you as a writer? Readers, what books have helped form your reading habits? And am I the only one who reads series hopelessly out of order?