Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dorothy & Phyllis: Detective Queens, Amateur Theologians, & Moms

Update 11/27/14: Baroness James has now joined Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie in the great beyond. She died today in her home in Oxford at 94.

There are three great English writers of detective fiction: Dorothy L. Sayers; Agatha Christie; P.D.James.

Sayers died in 1957 at the age of 64 and Christie in 1976 at age 85, but the Baroness James is still with us, at a spry 92. And just last week she participated in a series of conversations at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, called 'The Mind of the Maker,' named after a treatise by Dorothy Sayers that explores an analogy between human creativity/creation and the doctrine of The Trinity.

This conversation with the Rev. Michael Hampel was framed around the James's own journey of faith, including its impact on her writing. (She is almost always asked, "Why isn't Adam Dalgliesh a Christian?" Her answer is that he loves the Church of England but would not be an active member.)

Hampel leads the conversation to Dorothy L. Sayers, who put Lord Peter Wimsey on the literary map in 1923 with Whose Body? Adam Dagleish made his first appearance forty years later in Cover Her Face.

Sayers was a serious student of Christian dogma, even though she remained outside the halls of academia. She believed her very best work was her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, which is still used and known for her extensive notes. She wrote a serious of very accessible essays about the Apostles and Nicene Creeds collected as Creed or Chaos?

It's interesting that these two dynamic writers of detective novels—a genre that is loved by such a very broad range of readers—each had a deep, underlying interest in theology, which appeals to a very narrow swath of readers. Sleuths & Christian doctrine are unusual pasttimes to join up, except that you can investigate each eternally. Hmm.

Adam Dagleish & Lord Peter

For literary geeks it is a thrill to hear the creator of Adam Dalgliesh opine on Lord Peter and his creator.  Bits from the interview:

He (Adam Dalgliesh) doesn't develop as spectacularly as Lord Peter.

I think she [Sayers] fell in love with him [Wimsey] and made him the kind of man she would want to marry. An intellectual interested in religion.

She had a lot in common with Harriet Vane, who wrote detective stories. There's a slight bossiness about her, Harriet. And Dorothy was quite pugnacious.

If we want to know what it was like to work in an Advertising Office between the wars, we read Murder Must Advertise. It's absolutely brilliant.

And They're Moms

P.D. James married a doctor in 1941 and had two daughters. Dorothy married a Scottish war correspondent in 1926 and became stepmother to his two children. She had a son out of wedlock two years before, and asked her Aunt and cousin to raise him. So besides theology, our sleuths shared the identity and experience of mother.

James took the experience of giving birth into an unusual creative place with her 1992 dystopian novel, The Children of Men. Set in England in 2021 it tells the tale of a world suffering from global infertility. The 2006 film made many alterations to the novel, but it brought the work to a wide audience and James herself liked it.

From Caryn James's article on the movie: "As Ms. James said in an interview when the book came out: “The detective novel affirms our belief in a rational universe because, at the end, the mystery is solved. In ‘The Children of Men’ there is no such comforting resolution.”

Happy Mother's Day, Baroness.