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'No Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition or Mumbo Jumbo': Dorothy L Sayers and the Detection Club | Books


In 1933, Lucy Malleson – who published detective stories under the name Anthony Gilbert – received a letter from one of her literary heroes. Dorothy L Sayers, creator of the flamboyantly monocled detective Lord Peter Wimsey, was writing to invite her to join the Detection Club, a secret society for crime writers, which Malleson regarded as “an association of the aristocracy of the detection writing world”. “Everything snobbish in my system,” Malleson recalled, in her memoir Three-a-Penny, “acclaimed this opportunity to hobnob with the great.” With some trepidation, she arrived at the Northumberland Avenue Hotel in London for the initiation dinner, to be swept up by “a massive and majestic lady in a black dress” – Sayers herself – and led down a hall lit only by flickering tapers. On instruction, Malleson placed her hand on a skull, which an impassive John Rhode was holding on a cushion, while the club’s president, GK Chesterton, dressed in a scarlet cloak and flanked by torchbearers, intoned commandments “in a voice that might have come from the abyss”. Malleson was to swear that her detective would make no use whatsoever of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”; that she would “conceal no vital clues from the reader”, and be sure to “honour the King’s English”. Should she fail in her solemn duty, Chesterton warned, a curse would befall her: “May other writers anticipate your plots, may total strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints, and your sales continually diminish!”

The Detection Club had been established three years earlier by a group of crime writers that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Baroness Orczy and Ronald Knox. Chesterton was its first president, replaced in 1936 by EC Bentley; Sayers, originally the club’s secretary, held the chair from 1949. And ever since its foundation, members have regularly convened in London restaurants and hotels, at dinners notorious for their macabre rituals and mock-serious insistence on their “fair-play” creed, which also prohibits the use in any detective plot of “hitherto undiscovered poisons”, “more than one” secret room or passage, or the introduction of identical twins without proper warning. In the early 1930s, the proceeds from The Floating Admiral, a collaborative novel put together by 12 authors, enabled the club to rent premises at 31 Gerrard Street in Soho, where members repaired after dinner for the convivial discussion of “clues and corpses”. Beyond this, the club had “no object”, as Sayers informed a prospective member, “except mutual assistance, entertainment, and admiration”.

The archives of the Detection Club are now held, incongruously, in the Marion E Wade Center in Illinois, among a series of manuscripts, letters and ephemera belonging to seven Christian British writers including CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Chesterton and Sayers. (Gems of the collection include Lewis’s wardrobe, the desk at which Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, and Sayers’s pince-nez). I visited the centre while researching Sayers for my book Square Haunting, a biography of five women writers, including Sayers, who lived in London’s Mecklenburgh Square between the wars. As I perused her letters home from university, examined fragments of unpublished stories and sifted through notebooks packed with elaborately drawn plot diagrams, I found myself captivated by several folders of lively correspondence between Sayers and the leading crime writers of her day, intimately detailing the top-secret activities of the Detection Club.

These archives show Sayers at her dynamic best, and reveal just how much energy she expended, over several decades, to keep the club afloat. She informed new candidates of their selection and assuaged their doubts about the sinister initiation ceremony. (Josephine Tey was anxious to know whether she was in for “a quiz? an endurance test? A ritual???”) She deliberated on the merits of potential candidates, pondering whether an excellent stylist had put quite enough detection in his last novel to qualify for membership, and whether an ingenious plot could compensate for a fictional detective who was “rude and cruel”. She cajoled friends to attend lectures by coroners, chief constables, philosophers and, once, a “genuine Viennese psychoanalyst”, who was imported to address the club on murder.

Sayers’s activities for the club extended far beyond the purely administrative. She reassured a member who had become so drunk at a meeting that they couldn’t remember anything about the night (“you were completely normal after dinner, and particularly helpful and charming to Anthony Berkeley’s American guest, whom he so discourteously abandoned”), reminded members of the customary tip for the head waiter (“in consideration of the extra fuss caused by skulls, candles, and other impediments which have to lie about the place and be carried up and down in lifts, etc”) and remonstrated sternly with those who left club premises in disarray. It’s clear from the archive that Sayers relished her responsibilities, and displayed enormous commitment to the club through periods of financial difficulty. She worried about rent, the cost of heating, wine stains on the carpet (eventually replaced with linoleum), and whether members risked being confused for employees of “the vaunted brothel next door”.





Dorothy L Sayers in 1938.



Dorothy L Sayers in 1938. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

In part, her enthusiasm was born of her sincere belief in the importance of the detective genre. “If there is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club,” she insisted, “it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standard that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, clap-trap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.” In a 1928 introduction to an anthology of detective stories, Sayers argued that the genre’s progression from sensational Victorian thrillers to the logical puzzles of the Edwardian era meant that, for her generation, detective writing was a matter of technical craft, not of style or art. Sayers was critical of novels of the sort that Chesterton called “a drama of masks and not of faces”, where murder was committed only to provide a corpse, and nothing more serious was at stake than the detective’s reputation. Rather, she insisted, detective novels should – like any “literary” fiction – contain atmosphere, character, human truth and a driving force beyond the mechanics of plot. Only then, she suggested, could an author “persuade us that violence really hurts”. Over the 1930s, Sayers herself moved away from the puzzle-plots of her earlier novels, seeking to write a new sort of detective fiction, with a human dilemma at its heart. Her 1935 masterpiece Gaudy Night – widely acclaimed today as “the first feminist detective novel” – explores how a clever woman can reconcile her desire for intellectual and emotional fulfilment, and retain her hard-won independence even as she falls in love. As she worked, Sayers’s confidence was surely boosted by intimate conversations with other brilliant writers who sought to expand the possibilities of their chosen form.

Above all, the club provided its members with a readymade community, and an increasingly valuable lifeline for Sayers through a difficult period in her life. In 1926, she had married Mac Fleming, a motoring correspondent who was increasingly ill, distant and resentful of Sayers’s success; while he spent most of his time at their home in Essex, Sayers retained her Bloomsbury flat as a private sanctuary, and enjoyed escaping to London for the exhilaration of club meetings. Furthermore, she wrote, such camaraderie proved a much-needed balm to the loneliness of the detective writer, who was often compelled to see everything through the eyes of a potential villain. “For about 16 hours out of the 24 you are consciously or sub-consciously brooding on murder. You pick up the paper and read about a new kind of nail polish or a patent cooker, and you immediately begin to wonder whether you couldn’t somehow use it to kill somebody.” At club meetings, not only could one admit such perversions, but one could submit fresh ideas for dissection by experts alert to any chink in murderous logic.

Sayers died suddenly in 1957, whereupon the Detection Club presidency passed to Agatha Christie, who was so shy that a co-president (Lord Gorell) had to be appointed to make the speeches and toasts. Yet the club goes on. In the course of my research, I was lucky enough to be invited by the current president, Martin Edwards (author of an excellent history of the club, The Golden Age of Murder), to the club’s annual dinner. Guests are sworn to secrecy on the events of the night, but one of the greatest thrills of my years of research was laying a hand on the skull, Eric (recently renamed Erica after some cranial investigations deemed her female), which Sayers is lovingly cradling in one of my favourite photographs of her (an image that does not do justice to the battery operated red neon lights resting in its eye sockets). Today, the illustrious members take as much pride in their alliance as their Golden Age counterparts. In May 1940, Christopher Bush, who was fighting in France, wrote to Sayers to apologise for missing his initiation ceremony. “After the war, when I – or if I am unlucky, my wife – stand on the kerb with my matches, there will be prominently above the tray a card displayed to call forth the kindly charity of passersby. It will read – MEMBER OF THE DETECTION CLUB.”

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.

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