When I was twenty-four years old and pathetically academic, Stanford University gave me half a year to master the canon of literature in my doctoral field. I loathed my subject and couldn’t explain for the life of me why I’d bothered to study it; but here was a gift! Six months with nothing to do but sit in a comfortable armchair in the university library, and read!
Problem was, I kept falling asleep.
They were such lovely, drowsy, golden afternoons in that library—all the glory of California slanting through the modernist stacks, eucalyptus leaves rustling beyond the plate glass windows. The cushions were deep and the prose was turgid. From sheer mental torpor I turned to the one thing I knew would save me: I put down the canon and picked up the Dorothy Sayers.
Murder Must Advertise, to be exact.
People fall on their swords every day in defense of their favorite Sayers novel. Passionate, sensitive and articulate people argue themselves hoarse over the dueling sonnets in Gaudy Night, or the creeping horror of The Nine Tailors’ bludgeoning bells. But the book I return to, again and again, is Murder Must Advertise. I love the cleverness of the dope smugglers, the wit of the copywriters, the intricacy of the murder on the iron staircase, the revelations of the final cricket match and Lord Peter Wimsey in a harlequin’s tights. I love Dian de Momerie, louche and doomed, with her cant dialogue in words of one syllable. But most, I appreciate Wimsey’s envoie to the unfortunate murderer: Go home now. Go on foot, and not too fast. And don’t look behind you.
When my days are too full and my time is too short, and reading about neuroscience or the Taliban is what Dian de Momerie would call “too terribly yawn-making, darling,” I look to the classics of the Golden Age. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke is one of these: a white-knuckle novel of suspense, an elegant study in the redemption of the human soul. Michael Innes’s Lament for a Maker, in which the story of snowbound Scottish death unfolds through the serial pens of five distinct narrators, is another. I get a kick out of the cartoonish drama of E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, as well as its fiendishly clever plot; but when I think about why I re-read these books, I always come back to character. It’s character, not plot, that abides in the dark watches of the night.
Which brings me to two modern classics, sure to endure: Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which offers one of the most sensitive portraits ever drawn of an intelligent young girl’s coming of age; and Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which hellion Flavia de Luce—who could be Dorothy Sayers at age twelve—saves everybody worth saving through the force of her own wit.
I squeaked through my Orals, but never wrote my dissertation. Twenty-odd novels later, I’m grateful to Stanford for the armchair in the library—and the epiphany it brought: fiction will always be more compelling, to me, than fact; and half a year with nothing to do but read, is still the best gift of all.