Reading Sayer in the 21st Century

Early paperback edition cover

Early paperback edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayer took some adjusting to. I had never read any early mysteries so at first the genre conventions were baffling. (Along with the actual 1930s Britishness of it, as opposed to the fake or “translated” Britishness we often get on this side of the pond.) However, it was also exciting to read something with no knowledge of the conventions and consciously compare and contrast them with the ones I’m familiar with, like pages and pages of dialogue without dialogue tags or physical descriptions. Sometimes it’s a bit of a game to figure out who is speaking and what exactly is going on as they react to action that is not described. And pacing. Holy moly is the pacing different. But that’s to be expected, since everything today is super fast paced. Movies from the 80s seem slow.

As a 21st Century reader, my biggest problem was Peter Wimsey’s treatment of Harriet Vane. There’s one scene where she’s in prison and he’s promising to prove her innocence but it hasn’t been going well. He takes out his feelings on Harriet Vane until he feels better and she’s red faced and upset. He leaves whistling, I believe. (I’ve returned the book to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote.) And then there’s, to my mind, the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate for Peter to repeatedly ask a woman in jail to marry him, when he’s the only one trying to prove her innocence. But that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar in the 1930s apparently.

I struggled more to get through Have His Carcase. Maybe because I would have liked more Harriet Vane. Maybe I didn’t care as much about the murder victim and didn’t feel like I could figure out the mystery before the author tells me the answer. Maybe it was the pacing. It also seems a less funny book at the beginning, though it gets funnier as it goes along, to the point where I laughed out loud a few times.

And maybe it’s all that plus some of those 1930s attitudes are less than charming.

Harriet Vane: “There might be a few scattered houses on the road, but they would probably belong to fishermen, and ten to one she would find nobody at home but women and children, who would be useless in the emergency.” (p15)

Really? The women farmers and fishermen’s wives, who run the farms and houses while the men are gone, probably logistically a challenging job, who probably work beside their husbands, doing physical tasks Harriet would be hardpressed to do, who are probably tough and pragmatic and used to taking care of emergencies on their own, wouldn’t be much use in an emergency?

And then there are the casual racial and ethnic slurs. And while I don’t think “dago” has been much used since the mid-20th Century the n-word makes an appearance a few times. Dago was used freely in the book. While it doesn’t have the same visceral impact that current slurs have (no one has ever used it against me, and I’ve never heard anyone called it. I only know it from textbooks, and I probably only remembered it because it was used against my ancestors—but I was already safely considered white by the time I was reading those textbooks), the attitude behind it was shocking. And I don’t think I’ll ever be desensitized to the n-word. It was such a casual othering.

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