LETTERS TO BOOK CLUB: The Documents in the Case

Fans of the GAD blogosphere, you are about to be inundated with Dorothy L. Sayers. Now, Sayers has her fans, of which I am not one. But even I will not make the mistake of underestimating her importance to the genre. Despite only writing a dozen mysteries, Sayers had a profound influence on the evolution and popularity of the 20th century crime novel. She created one of the most popular GAD sleuths, Lord Peter Wimsey, and then upped his celebrity by pairing him with Harriet Vane. 

Like her contemporary and friend, Anthony Berkeley (and most unlike fellow Queen Agatha Christie), Sayers grew quickly restless with what she saw as the formulaic limitations of the mystery story. While Berkeley kept reinventing himself from book to book, Sayers simply gave up writing in the genre and turned to more intellectual pursuits. However, she continued for many years to write criticism of her fellow writers, and her cogent and witty reviews did a lot to foment the public’s love for her contemporaries and those who followed. 

That’s not to say that Sayers didn’t experiment . . . a little. Although eleven of her twelve mysteries feature Lord Peter, one of them, her sixth, was an attempt by the author to move away from the strictures of the puzzle plot and into the realm of the crime story. The real life case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters fascinated Sayers and many of her fellow writers, and she was inspired by the details to write The Documents in the Case (1930). And this happens to be the first Sayers that my Book Club chose to read together. 

I’ll admit that I was initially excited because I love mysteries that come in the form of a dossier of evidence. I will admit that the series created by Dennis Wheatley constitutes most of my experience, and nobody can argue that the actual mysteries contained therein are especially scintillating. But the opportunity to examine the documents and physical evidence of a case is kind of fun. 

Now, I was fully aware as I picked up Documents, which looks and feels exactly like a book rather than a Wheatley dossier, that there were no buttons or scraps of cloth contained within its pages. What the book, which Sayers co-wrote with scientist and fellow mystery writer Robert Eustace, actually contains are mostly letters, followed by statements made after the murder and during the trial. That makes it pretty much an epistolary novel. I like epistolary novels. I liked Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I loved Janice Hallett’s The Appeal, which consisted mostly of e-mails. I loved Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, which chronicled the first year of a young teacher’s work life through school bulletins, personal messages and letters, and students’ homework, although the only mystery contained here is how a person like me could have read this book and still had the guts to become an educator. 

Unfortunately, I did not like The Documents in the Case. I thought it started off okay and then got boring. Having recently talked here about how much I like courtroom cases, the trial in this book was a drag. (Come to think of it, so was the last one we read in Book Club, so much so that I didn’t even review it!) But, hey – this is only my opinion. And it wasn’t a total wash: the opening letters were amusing, alternating between two distinctive voices: one a sardonic but charming poet writing to his fiancée and the other a neurotic spinster sharing her distorted view of reality with her sister. Both of them dwell in the household of Mr. George Harrison and his second, younger wife: the poet, Mr. Munting, rents rooms on the top floor with his artist friend, Harwood Lathom, while the spinster, Miss Agatha Milsom, acts as companion to the Harrisons (although why anyone would want a creature like that hanging about them is the true mystery in this book.) 

Despite one disturbing event that occurs between these two characters, they turn out to be mere witnesses to the central events that involve the Harrisons and young Lathom. This turns out to be not so much a whodunnit but a “is this murder and, if so, how was it dun”-nit. Here is where Eustace provided Sayers with a lot of scientific information that she found fascinating because she ends up sharing all of it here. The joys of reading about mushrooms and mirror drugs sadly eluded me, but I have no doubt that this book fascinates other readers, even those huge Sayers fans who might have initially been disappointed in the absence of Lord Peter, Bunting, or Harriet Vane. 

I hope I haven’t disappointed everyone with my lack of enthusiasm for Sayers. Clearly, my next read of hers needs to be the most scintillating Wimsey she wrote, whatever one that may be. Meanwhile, after a couple of months of duds, I’m excited about the next two Book Club choices. I’m halfway through our September book, Seishi Yokomizo’s Death on Gokumon Island, which is long but fascinating. And in October we get to dive into Death of Jezebel, which also happens to be the next on the list of my dive into the mysteries of Christianna Brand. So please . . . don’t give up on me!

9 thoughts on “LETTERS TO BOOK CLUB: The Documents in the Case

  1. I know what you mean about the form, it can work incredibly well with authors as different as Wilkie Collins, Robert Bloch (THE TODD DOSSIER) and Philip Macdonald (THE MAZE). But it’s also hard to make it work in a credible way. My favourite Sayers (and I only like some) definitely lie elsewhere.


  2. I currently teach Dorothy Sayers in a class. I have chosen “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” because of its clear connections to the Modernist period and the impact of WWI on society. I like the changes the novel shows in science, arts, technology, society, and the individual–revealing a “generation gap” between those raised in the Victorian period, and those who are younger– and the broken world they’ve inherited. I think it opens with a bang of a first chapter, too!


  3. I’m a Sayers fan, but I didn’t like this book. I don’t mind books made up of letters, but in this case I couldn’t buy into the letters those characters wrote. Or were letters just that long-winded in those days? BTW ‘Gaudy Night’ was also something of an experiment by Sayers, trying to make a detective novel more “literary” and respectable. (Not to mention not even having a murder to solve! It’s probably not the next Sayers you’d want to try.) She also started ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ with letters, but they were shorter and more fun to read!


    • Speaking of the letters, was mail delivery more expedient back then? In Agatha Milsom’s letter that opens up the book, she writes the letter on Sept. 9, 1928, to her sister, then in the second chapter, she responds back to Olive Farebrother, her sister’s letter, on Sept. 13, 1928. So that means from the time Agatha mails the letter to her sister, to the time her sister receives the letter from Agatha, answers it, posts it, Agatha receives it, and writes back, all that takes place within 4 days? Wow, that’s fast! And throughout the book, there are examples of such expediency within the post. Was the post system really that fast at the time Sayers wrote this book? Am I missing something here? An inquiring mind would like to know.


  4. I also like it when writers give various news reports in the style of the Times, Mail, Daily Worker etc. I think Sayers does this, also Christie – and Dickens.

    I like Documents – but then I’m a nerd who likes stuff about sinister drugs and poisonous mushrooms that look /just/ like the edible ones.

    Bellona Club is a good Sayers to start on, for the reasons stated, tho watch out for padding about “Mr Oliver”. Murder Must Advertise is also a good one – for the office gossip and inside dope about creating adverts. Plus the cast are /not/ all aristocrats. I have a soft spot for the spivvy Mr Smayle.


  5. I had a copy of The Documents In The Case for years. It’s been YEARS since I last bought it at BooksAMillion–I think that’s where I bought it—or was it Barnes & Nobles? Anyways, I FINALLY cracked it open up last month and just last night I finished it. It’s not a dud of a book nor was it a flawless masterpiece either, but it’s a solid effort with some rough spots. Despite its rough patches, I read it the whole way through. Dorothy L. Sayers’ style is literary and she displays such erudition, that to a 21st-century inhabitant like me, some things go right over my head, but regardless of that, I’m glad I stayed with it the whole way through. The end of the book left me in much deep thought making the overall experience a rich one. I will definitely revisit this book in the future.

    I like to make compare and contrast one GAD mystery with another, and one of the observations I noticed was how small a similarity the interpersonal relationship–this triangle–between George Harrison, Margaret Harrison, and Harwood Lathom resembles the triangle with John Christow, Gerda Christow, and Henrietta Savernake in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • SPOILERS . . .

      Well, maybe on the most superficial of levels. We have a husband, a wife, and a lover. The lover is an artist, and the wife is a killer. But these are very different sorts of killers: Margaret is a cold-blooded plotter who inspires her lover to kill her husband, and Gerda is a creature who operates on instinct. In Five Little Pigs, we also have a triangle, and this time the lover is the killer (as in Sayers’ book) but the artist is the victim. In all honesty, I didn’t read this one closely enough to notice the significance of Lathom being an artist, while I feel that is one of the strengths in both of Christie’s books.

      Sayers was clearly more literary and richer in her writing, if not her plotting, than Christie. Her Lord Peter books are full of wit, though, and while there’s a little of that in the portrayal of the spinster, this book felt much more heavy.


      • What makes this book so heavy is the theological and scientific conversations that are so technical—maybe a bit TOO technical and vast that it weighs the book down, especially towards the end. But still a solid book in my opinion.

        What I like about the end of the book is how true to life it is and of course it would be in some respects because it was inspired by the 1922 Edith Thompson & Frederick Bywater case. It was true to life as to how ambiguous Margaret Harrison’s intent was—whether she deliberately inspired her lover to kill her husband or not. It’s not so black and white, so cut and dry as it appears on the surface. And with the court evidently not able to stick a guilty verdict on her through those letters (she doesn’t hang, but Lathom does), Sayers leaves Margaret’s true intent up in the air for readers to decide. I do think that Margaret purposely inspired Lathom to kill her husband. Makes me wonder if she ever loved Lathom to begin with or used him so she could have freedom from her husband while protecting her reputation and not having any trace of scandal behind her.


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