No Romance in Mystery? What Sayers Wrote

I am writing the Dorothy Sayers & Charles Dickens chapter of Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge: The Literary Companion to Harry Potter (Penguin, 2009) and I thought I could share here something I found that some of you may find interesting. As you know, Ms. Rowling mentioned Dorothy Sayers in the Spartz/Annelli interview in 2005:

There’s a theory — this applies to detective novels, and then Harry, which is not really a detective novel, but it feels like one sometimes — that you should not have romantic intrigue in a detective book. Dorothy L. Sayers, who is queen of the genre, said — and then broke her own rule, but said — that there is no place for romance in a detective story except that it can be useful to camouflage other people’s motives. That’s true; it is a very useful trick. I’ve used that on Percy and I’ve used that to a degree on Tonks in this book, as a red herring. But having said that, I disagree inasmuch as mine are very character-driven books, and it’s so important, therefore, that we see these characters fall in love, which is a necessary part of life.

All well and good. I think I found the essay today in which Dorothy Sayers wrote this (or something very much like this) and share the relevant passage for your reflection and comment:

From Sayers’ ‘The Omnibus of Crime,’ which first appeared in 1928’s Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror

The instances in which the love-story is an integral part of the plot are extremely rare. One very beautiful example occurs in The Moonstone. Here the entire plot hangs on the love of two women for Franklin Blake. Both Rachel Verinder and Rosanna Spearman know that he took the diamond, and the whole mystery arises from their efforts to shield him. Their conduct is, in both cases, completely natural and right, and the characters are so finely conceived as to be entirely convincing. E.C. Bentley, in Trent’s Last Case, has dealt finely with the still harder problem of the detective in love. Trent’s love for Mrs. Manderson is a legitimate part of the plot; while it does not prevent him from drawing the proper conclusion from the evidence before him, it does prevent him from acting upon his conclusions, and so prepares the way for the real explanation. Incidentally, the love story is handled artistically and with persuasive emotion.

In The House of the Arrow, and, still more strikingly, in No Other Tiger, A.E. W. Mason has written stories of strong detective interest which at the same time have the convincing psychological structure of the novel of character. The characters are presented as a novelist presents them – romantically, it is true, but without that stark insistence on classifying and explaining which turns the persons of the ordinary detective-story into a collection of museum exhibits.

Apart from such unusual instances as these, the less love in a detective-story the better. “L’amuor au theatre,” says Racine, “ne peut pas etre en seconde place,” and this holds good of detective fiction. A casual and perfunctory love-story is worse than no love story at all, and, since the mystery must, by hypothesis, take the first place, the love is better left out. (The Art of the Mystery Story, Carroll & Graf, 1992, p. 104)

So what?

What’s curious here is, if this is the Sayers “no love in detective fiction” passage that Ms. Rowling is citing, that Sayers’ greater point seems to be that, in novels that are character-driven, romance and mystery certainly can co-exist, and they even should co-exist lest the characters become detective story cardboard cut-outs. Ms. Rowling offers this point in the Spartz/Annelli interview as if she is differing from Sayers in Harry Potter when she is only acting on Sayers’ guidance.


In addition, it seems that Ms. Rowling’s having said that Ms. Sayers “broke her own rule” is not true; when “the queen of the genre” involved Sir Peter and Miss Vane in romance, it was strictly in accordance with her character-first rule.

More interesting to me, as long as I’m talking Sayers-Rowling (and taking a break from the book to say hi to HogPro friends; anyone out there not yet picked up The Deathly Hallows Lectures? Read the first Amazon reviews below and order today!), is that Sayers is known as a “character-driven” mystery writer and that this is what distinguishes her from the more formulaic ‘whodunnit’ writers of the Golden Age, like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. (Anyone out there a Philo Vance fan?)

John G. Cawelti writes in Adventury, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1977) in the chapter contrasting Sayers and Christie that:

Christie’s stories almost infallibly engross the reader who enjoys the game of detection and mystification above all.

For many readers this will always be the most important aspect of the classical detective genre and they will tend to reject stories that allow other sources of interest to encroach on the centrality of the detection/mystification structure. I quite agree with this contention insofar as it asserts that a story which is not structured a puzzling inquiry cannot be a good detective story, whatever its other merits. And yet it does seem to me that many superb detective tales, in effect, reverse the Christie balance of character-atmosphere and mystery by using the mystery structure as a means of giving us a certain special angle on the world. The work of Dorothy Sayers is an excellent example.

Dorothy Sayers is often cited in the same breath with Agatha Christie because they do have so many things in common. The English setting — frequently of the “Mayhem Parva” school — the eccentric detective, the social comedy cast of characters, the domestic crime with its elaborate and ingenious problems of scheduling, motives, means, all these formulaic elements seem fundamentally similar in the Sayers/Christie canon. I would even go so far as to say that Sayers sometimes does her best to construct the tale that has the same Christie-esque emphasis on the fantastically ingenious crime and the game between reader and detective.

I find these stories much less successful than Christie at her best because Sayers is not as skillful as Christie in constructing a cast of character and a situation that will effectively dramatize the twists and turns of the detection mystification structure. A work like Five Red Herrings, perhaps the most complicated and ingenious of Sayers’s crime plots is finally boring to read because it bogs down in the interminable examination of clues and schedules without Christie’s little touches of character and changing situations to dramatize the process of inquiry. When Sayers involves the presentation of mystery with the evocation of a set of characters and a social atmosphere, she is, in my opinion, a far richer and more complex artist than Christie. (pp. 119-120)

Cawelti goes on to examine Sayers’ The Nine Tailors,’ a book he thinks is her best work as a mystery writer, which he thinks is her best just because it is about much more than ‘whodunnit’ and ‘howdiddit.’ As he writes, Nine Tailors:

uses the classical detective structure to embody a vision of the mysteries of divine providence. This moral and religious aspect of the story by no means prevents it from having an effective and complex structure of detection and mystification, but this structure relates to the other interests of character, atmosphere, and theme in a very different way than is typical of Christie…. Character, also, assumes a kind of prominence in the story that is almost unknown to Christie.

His conclusion is that Sayers’ best work is “an example of a classical detective tale into which alternative narrative interests in character, social setting, and thematic significance have been interwoven into the structure of a mystery.” Why bother? Because “Sayers’s religious and social vision was perhaps most effectively expressed through the format of a classical detective story” (pp. 120-121).

Two notes before I go back to the book and leave the room for your comments:

(1) Ms. Rowling is most like Agatha Christie, not in her story telling, but in her sales and reach. The real Queen of Detective Fiction (there are four Queens supposedly, but Christie is the Empress of that lot) has sold more than 4 billion books through her 69 novels and 19 plays. Ms. Rowling at >400 million books sold in just over one decade is setting a nice pace to surpass Christie as the Guiness Book of World Records champion in publishing history; she is crushing Dame Christie on sales-per-book/play average and in annual sales. Other than divorce, writing somewhat in the same category, and prodigious sales, however, the two have little in common. Christie wrote great formula pieces with engaging characters but the mystery was the thing, not the layered meaning and nuance.

(2) With Sayers, however, born and raised at Christ Church, Oxford, where her father was an Anglican clergyman among the Oxford Platonists (‘British Idealists’) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rowling has quite a bit in common. For starters: a classical education, a spell of single motherhood, Christian faith, I’d guess a taste for Dante and hermetic writing, and, as I will argue in my coming book, a penchant for delivering layers of meaning in stories that superficially at least are light reads for diversion. At least half the narrative drive in the Harry Potter novels comes from the mystery Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are trying to solve and Ms. Rowling follows Ms. Sayers’ lead in using the genre and its formulas only until it makes it harder to deliver the load of meaning she’s put in the cart.

Your comments and correction are welcome, even coveted, as always. Especially if someone has a better Sayers passage that says anything about romance being used to camouflage motive or if you think this one does say that….

My apologies for the long gaps between posts! I hope during the downtime at HogPro you are enjoying The Deathly Hallows Lectures. Here are what your fellow serious readers of Harry Potter have said at

5.0 out of 5 stars An “eye-opening” read, September 27, 2008
By P. Irvin – See all my reviews

You don’t have to be an authority on Dante, C.S.Lewis, or William Shakespeare to get your head around John Granger’s latest book, *The Deathly Hallows Lectures*. The purpose of DHL is to introduce and enlighten the reader as to the many layers of symbolism in Harry Potter’s journey/defeat over Lord Voldemort.

The HogWarts Professor writes in an easy-to-read style that combines his quirky humor with the intricacies of literary analysis. John doesn’t talk down to his reader. On the contrary, his tone is quite personable. I felt as if I was sitting in an upper-level lit class led by an instructor more interested in making sure I was “getting” the information instead of telling me how much he knew. A word of caution: you may want to keep a dictionary close at hand during the meatier/deeper discussion points!

Bottom line, *The Deathly Hallows Lectures* is a wonderful tool for unlocking the many layers of J K Rowling’s work. Serious readers will no doubt recognize the many literary traditions John references throughout. Novices (like myself) will be introduced to new ways of reading and examining the deeper meanings beneath the storylines. I heartily recommend *The Deathly Hallows Lectures* to the serious and interested-in-becoming-serious reader.

4.0 out of 5 stars Are you a seeker? , September 2, 2008
By crankypants – See all my reviews

It seems like the majority of Deathly Hallows critique and analysis has focused on what Rowling got wrong — the opportunities she missed, the issues left unresolved, etc. Mr. Granger’s book of essays/lectures points out what Rowling got right and makes a very persuasive argument that Deathly Hallows is the artistic capstone of the series, and not just a cop-out. Mr. Granger’s arguments are written in a clear and entertaining way that makes them accessible to casual readers. But there is also a lot of meat to his ideas — enough to intrigue even jaded lit majors such as myself. Mr. Granger makes a wonderful analogy between the game of Quidditch and literary analysis and invites us to become seekers. His book is a demonstration of the riches that await someone willing to delve deeper beyond the storyline into the symbols and structures that underly the story and that give the story its emotional and moral impact. Mr. Granger’s book is also helpful for anyone wishing to cut through the kerfuffle regarding Christianity and occultism in Harry Potter and the debate as to whether Harry Potter has literary merit. His discussions of these issues are thoughtful and balanced. I definitely have a greater appreciation of Deathly Hallows having read Mr. Granger’s book and I am newly inspired to keep seeking to find new treasures in Mr. Rowling’s work. Thanks to Mr. Granger, Dante on my short list of works to re-read.

5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, September 17, 2008
By eeyore6771 – See all my reviews
Having read all of John Granger’s books, I was not surprised to find that this latest one, “The Deathly Hallows Lectures” is full of even more insights into the depth of the Harry Potter books. This book is not only fun to read, taking the reader back through all the books, and tying up the series with Deathly Hallows, but also points to the rich tradition of literature that inspired J. K. Rowling. Granger’s book also shows how Rowling answered her Christian critics throughout the series, by pointing the obvious Christian imagery throughout the books, and especially in the last one, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.

Because of this book, as well as John’s previous ones, I’ve been delving back into Austen, Dickens, Lewis, Shakespeare and many others. And now, I’ve added Dante to my list.

“The Deathly Hallows Lectures” by John Granger sheds light on the symbolic writing of Rowling in a way that enhances every re-reading of the Harry Potter books, making them even more enjoyable than they were on my first reading.


  1. I think that JKR acknowledges her debt to Sayers very clearly in regard to both the detective aspects with social commentary/theology/comedy intertwined and in the ability to use romantic interest in the genre and more so in the character driven genre she is also using. I think she is drawing a distinction that 1) you may use the romance in the detective genre as a device to inform and obscure simultaneously, and 2) in the formulaic detective genre an inadequately displayed romance is worse than none, but in the character-driven genre, it may be utilized to inform, obscure, and advance the storyline in both detective and romantic aspects of development of the characters. I think JKR’s emphasis is that she has done the latter and not the former only. The characters must develop and especially in the capacity for love.

    On one of the prior lives of this blog, we had a thread on the Sayers-Rowling connection and some discussion of these matters, or it may have been at the B&N Uni. At any rate, I think we have discussed previously the Harriet Vane-Lord Peter romance and growth in capacity for love revealed over the books of that series. The story arc of the downtrodden Harriet unable to love due to abusive injury and murder charge is brought to full life by growth in love and trust until the marriage of she and Lord Peter at long last (engendering one wit’s comment, Which was a relief to all, God knows, and especially the principals!”).

    The Harry – Ginny story line has some parallels here in the arc of the story. Ginny is similarly used by Lord V and accused of murder and left for dead. She is rescued by Harry and their relationship has to grow apace – through their character development as preteens, adolescents, and young adults – to its adult fruition and vitality and productive years. Sayers short stories about Harriet/Peter and their offspring are delightful vignettes not unlike the Epilogue.

    Remembering the bruhaha over snogging? I cannot think of a parallel in Sayers unless it be the off-hand references to Lord Peter’s French education in the arts d’amor d’physicale, but there is an opportunity well employed by JKR in character development. This informed and amused/dismayed one watching the Ron/Hermione and Ginny/Harry shipping businesses. Very painful it was too. JKR may genuinely say that she utilized romance in this venue more than Sayers but because she added in the coming-of-age genre and not solely in the detective component genre elements of romance to which Ms Sayer’s comments are addressed specifically.

    So, Professor, while I think your source is a likely source for JKR to have found the ideas she attributes to Sayers (and I have the Omnibus and have read the article and the stories!), I don’t think this is “whoops”-worthy exactly as you have suggested. I think JKR is differentiating between herself and her mixed-genre story from the advice for merely the detective novel by an authoress who worked in mixed-genre storytelling as well.

    Both these ladies instruct while delighting and inform while getting us involved in their characters. I would say that I think JKR has achieved as well in her mixed-genre categories as Sayers in hers, for me personally. Their categories of mixing overlap but are not coterminant, if they share remarkable contiguous areas.

    I have read Ms. Sayers works of fiction, drama, theology, Dante, and criticism annually since college (getting on over 3 decades now!) and I expect to continue doing so profitably until Kingdom come. I am grateful that I have the same opportunity in Harry Potter.

    And when the Kingdom does come, I hope to have very long conversations (with cigarettes, expresso, and good scotch) with them about their artistry. That shall indeed be heaven, especially if the HogPro Professor and All-Stars are there to partake in the Logos and logoi and logic (if not necessarily the cigarettes, expresso, or scotch)!!! Ad majoram Dei gloriam!

  2. For all of you who have copies of *The Deathly Hallows Lectures* and have been astonished by the argument and conclusions of Chapter 5, ‘The Seeing Eye’ on the eye symbolism and its importance in understanding the logos/kingdom of heaven Harry calls King’s Cross, here is a quotation from Dorothy Sayers that is in the biography *Dorothy Sayers: Her Life and Soul* by Barbara Reynolds:

    “One must remember that though in one sense the Other World was a definite place, somewhere beyond the Atlantic Ocean, yet in another the kingdom of gods was within one. Earth and fairy-land co-exist upon the same foot of ground. It was all a matter of the seeing eye . . . The dweller in this world can become aware of an existence on a totally different plane. To go from earth to faery is like passing from this time to eternity; it is not a journey in space, but a change in mental outlook.” (Reynolds, p. 188)

    As Lewis writes, “Much depends on the Seeing Eye.”

    HT and thanks to Robert Trexler for this great find.

  3. Thank you for checking in, Inked, with your Sayers expertise! I would defer here but Ms. Rowling says she is parting with Sayers when she does what Sayers says should be the practice.

    Here is another statement from the opening of *Busman’s Honeymoon:*

    “It has been said, by myself and others, that a love interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective intrusion might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation. It also provides some sort of answer to many kindly inquiries as to how Lord Peter and his Harriet solved their matrimonial problem. If there is but a ha’porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse.” (cited in the Reynolds biography mentioned above, page 270; HT Robert Trexler again)

    This is pretty much what Ms. Rowling says she is doing but she contrasts it with Sayers’ supposed “no love in detective fiction” rule. Either she is familiar with an earlier passage about love in mysteries that is more Sinai-like (and the one I cite is from 1928 and, as you know, is the standard essay of reference for Sayers on Mysteries) or she made an honest mistake.

    You might have caught it, Inked; certainly Mr. Spartz and Ms. Annelli were caught with the same look on their faces that the Leaky Cauldron crew had when Ms. Rowling referred to the Potter Silmarillion she is writing as “the Scottish Book” during her most recent appearance there. Sayers? Macbeth? Anybody home?

    Anyway, I think she did as Sayers recommended but presented it as her disagreement with “the queen of the genre.” You see it more sympathetically (and charitably). Let’s put this one down as one of those times when I think Ms. Rowling slipped, a ‘Homer nods’ moment, if you will. I’m often accused of being unable to admit that possibility. On this reference to a point of formula in detective fiction in a giddy interview with two very young fans in the madness of the *Phoenix* release, I think she goofed. No big deal.

    On the mixed-genre point, I can say we agree in full. In fact, it’s the point of the Sayers chapter I’m writing and why Dickens and his orphan novels, the Bildungsroman are the second part of it. But more on that at a later date.

  4. Professor, you may well be correct – if the quotation suggested is the one to hand for this matter. However, I would suggest that rather than direct contradiction that the possibility of conflation of Ms. Sayers as President of the Detective Club and the Oath there taken with the Credo of Detective Writers might be the source of JKR’s apparent error.

    SS Van Dine (pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright) authored the Twenty rules for Detective Writing – published in 1928. He was the creator of detective Philo Vance. The Rules were published in 1936

    The Credo is available here in full:

    I draw your attention to rule number 3.
    “3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.”

    The Detection Club Oath is found here:

  5. The Rules were published in the 1936 omnibus *Philo Vance Murder Cases*.

    I think it would have been very easy for such a confusion to arise in the heat of the interview without consciously erring.

    At any rate, I will add that to my list of questions for JKR in heavenly conversation!

    (Please excuse the double entries. I inadverdantly entered submit before completing the entries. I have stayed up far too late on these intriguing matters. G’night!)

  6. Well, good Doctor, you have just earned yourself a place in my book. I was using a different list of Detection’s Ten Commandments, one without a strong Sayers link, and this is a wonderful improvement. Thank you very much!

  7. Professor John,

    I am sure that you may have explored the Sayers site further which listed the 20 Rules and the Detection Club Oath. However I would like to importune you to the extent that I bring to your notice the Sayers versus Van Dine differences in the detective story.

    “2. The ordinary beginner had to proceed with caution and to acquire technical facility in the process. During the next ten years the technique of detective fiction did improve out of all knowledge in the hands of a number of brilliant writers, and we all became a great deal more careful about our facts. Some of us, from time to time, even indulged in a little “good writing” here and there and were encouraged to find it well received. We also took occasion to preach at every opportunity that if the detective story was to live and develop it must get back to where it began in the hands of Collins and Le Fanu, and become once more a novel of manners instead of a pure crossword puzzle. My voice was raised very loudly to proclaim this doctrine, because I still meant my books to develop along those lines at all costs and it does no harm to let one’s theory act as a herald to one’s practice. Some people did not agree with us. Mr. Willard Huntington Wright (Van Dine) still believes, for example, that every vestige of humanity should be ruthlessly expunged from the detective novel; but I am sure he is wrong and we are right. It is not only that the reader gets tired after a time of a literature without bowels; in the end the writer gets tired of it too, and that is fatal.” (from “Gaudy Night” in The Art of the Mystery Story:209) ”

    (The 20 Rules were originally published in the American Spectator magazine in 1928. This is suspectly acknowledged to be the year of the beginnings of the Detection Club in informal meetings (and was claimed to have been founded in that year by Anthony Berkeley). There was a letter to the *Times Literary Supplement* signed by several members of the Club in 1930. See Julian Symons’ ” Preface: A Brief Account of the Detection Club” in *The Scoop & Behind the Screen* Charter Mystery, 1984. These stories were serialized in *The Listener* broadcasts in 1931 and 1931, respectively. The appendices to the book document this. *The Listener* serial extracts are drawn from the Dorothy L. Sayers Historical and Literary Society materials.)

    I think the above quotation shows the recovery of the novel of manners as Ms Sayers goal and the potential for romance to so participate. But I think it very easy to confuse the Rules with the Club and to conflate the Rules with Ms Sayers since she was so prominent a member and Ruler for many years (1949-1958) until her death.

    I think JKR was aligned with Ms Sayers in the use of character development and romance capacities in detective novels. I think she conflated the two conceptualizations and mis-characterized Sayers inadverdantly, especially since her comment on Sayers was “broke her own rule”. I find the use of the word rule to be the keynote for this apparent mis-attribution.

    Intrigued enough to pass a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the matter, and very grateful for your kind remarks.

  8. Another excellent clarification! Thank you, Inked.

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