Documents in the Case

Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers is one of the world's unsung classics. It isn't even one of Sayer's best known books. There are possibly several different reasons for this: it is not a Peter Wimsey mystery; it uses the letter-writing approach, which, despite the recent proliferation of fictional teenage diaries and such isn't the easiest approach to sell. I don't even especially like reading that kind of thing.

However, I had the privilege of hearing Documents in the Case read by the masterful Nigel Anthony long before I read the book. Nigel Anthony captures the various personalities excellently. The more you listen, as I do, the more stunning Sayers' achievement is.

First of all, she manages, as I think few authors who employ the letter writing style do, to create pieces that seem to generate naturally from the writers' personality. You do not learn about Miss Milsom or John Munting by reading their correspondence. You experience the writings of fully fleshed out characters that exist at some point offstage. The result is that the book is filled with highly complex personalities who, like all people, are seen from various perspectives and who do not react all of a piece to any given event.

With Peter Wimsey novels, I always feel that Wimsey, through Sayers, is in control of the text. I don't mind especially since I like Wimsey, but it does lend him an untouchable quality. But John Munting—the Wimsey of Documents in the Case—is an intelligent, perceptive, yet fully flawed individual who is seen repeatedly from other people's perspective. At one point in the book, Munting reports that he and his wife never discuss the murder "so tender had our minds become." And yet, because of this fragmented awareness of difference, the reader can guess that it is actually John Munting who is so sensitive and that, Elizabeth, his wife, a long-suffering woman, is humoring him. This kind of detachment from the hero (who is quite personable) is not really possible in Wimsey novels.

Likewise, when the murdered man's son shows up, he comes across as charismatically as Munting but of a totally different caste of mind. He is the "publisher" of the Documents since it is he, Paul, who collects the letters and statements to hand on to the D.A. His wry, black and white, yet oddly heroic voice gains its own credence. He is not refracted through Munting and therefore, he and Munting's somewhat antagonistic yet working relationship gains a edge of reality.

The result is a book in which the author presents themes and plot without intercession or moral blindsiding. It speaks for itself, a tremendously difficult thing to do (Shaw just didn't bother) unless you are Shakespeare or Austen. I think Austen achieved this in Mansfield Park, and I agree with those who consider Mansfield Park her best work. It isn't my favorite, but I do think it is her best. Through Fanny, Austen created a world in which she withheld judgment (except for the punishments at the end of course). She created characters and allowed them to carry out their actions without interference. That does not mean she didn't have a moral perspective; she clearly does. But she allows it to speak for itself. Which may be why Mansfield Park elicits such various reactions, from those who are convinced that Austen wrote it when she was depressed to those who are convinced that Austen saw herself as Fanny or saw herself as an anti-Fanny. Strange how reluctant people are to allow for the creative instinct.

To return to Documents in the Case, Sayers' moral perspective is that murder is wrong. This is surprisingly refreshing in a day when feeling sorry for the murderer (I mean, fictional murderer) is somehow supposed to translate into wishing they could get a lesser sentence. Sayers had a medieval sensibility which enabled her to create sympathetic, even charismatic murderers who still get the full punishment of the law. This, she seems to say, is the cost of a civilized society. Her theme is of the off-kilterness of life in general. She wrote the book with the help of scientist, Robert Eustace, and the science supplies the solution to the mystery as well as the thematic foundation. I won't go into it since I don't believe in spoiling mysteries, but Sayers does a thoroughly respectable job of pulling the theme through the book to its conclusion. There's an accompanying jarring of fate and randomness. It's a discussable book, although I doubt English classes will ever use it.

Ahhh, if I had my way . . .


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