Since we came up with this idea for a series of posts, I’ve been ransacking my shelves for books about the mail and also for epistolary novels—and stacking up my massive to-read pile with a few more, of course…
So what did I pick as the first book to talk about? Well… People who’ve heard of Dorothy L. Sayers usually know her as a mystery writer who created the fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, and most of her mystery books revolve around Lord Peter. Fewer have heard of her epistolary mystery, The Documents in the Case!
I wasn’t sure how exciting a mystery which almost entirely consists of collected letters and written documents could be. Confession letters are pretty common (in mystery fiction, at least!)… but it’s hard to see how that could make an impressive mystery. Writing lacks the immediacy of a room full of suspects! I didn’t really expect much, to be honest.
I’m a big fan of Lord Peter, though, and in those books there are some letters from a fantastic character (Miss Climpson). If you’re a fan of mysteries, I recommend those books as well! For the ones where Miss Climpson sends her gossipy, character-packed letters, try Unnatural Death and Strong Poison. In any case, that should’ve been a clue to me…
In The Documents in the Case, there’s just a bit of a frame narrative to explain the collection: the letters and documents (they’re not quite all letters) have been gathered together to show evidence for the crime. Almost all the evidence in the story consists of letters, and though nobody writes a confession as such, every single letter is a confession in its own way, laying bare the prejudices, beliefs and foibles of the characters. Here’s an example:
“Dear Olive: I have been much surprised and deeply hurt by Ronnie’s letter to me, which I enclose for you to see. I cannot believe that he would have written in that spirit of his own accord. I can only suppose that you and Tom have been prejudicing him against me. Of course, he is your child and not mine, but it is quite a mistake to imagine that, merely because of the physical accident of parenthood, you are, for that reason, divinely qualified to deal with a sensitive temperament like Ronnie’s.”
It goes on like that! Miss Agatha Milsom is quite a character, as you can tell.
If you think about it, our own letters are pretty revealing: I know I put something of myself even into my short postcards, chatting about what I’m reading and the area where I live. Sayers just takes it to extremes in The Documents in the Case, and reading it is a bit of a voyeuristic thrill. She said what?! He did what?! Doesn’t she realise…
It’s not all like that, though: there are also some rather sweet and funny letters. Sayers seems to take joy in portraying true companionship and joy, as well as the darker and more ridiculous sides of people. One of the characters, Jack Munting, writes several exuberant letters to his fiancée, and the murder victim writes a couple of letters to his son, all full of understated affection. Honestly, those personal letters might be my favourite part of the whole thing.
The mystery itself actually hangs on outside evidence, which is a little disappointing after the promise of all those letters… but it’s still very clever, the character studies are great, and I ended up enjoying every minute! It’s not the #1 mystery novel I’d recommend, but I think it’s worth a look.
To help me research for future posts, we’d love to hear more about the books you love which feature letters or anything mail-related! We’re hoping my next reviews for this blog will be Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, and I’m also planning to refresh my memory on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and a couple of other classics… but what else would you recommend, postcrossers?