Cover of The Documents in the Case

The Documents in the Case
Dorothy L. Sayers, with Robert Eustance
224 pages
published in 1930

The Documents in the Case is somewhat of an unusual Dorothy Sayers novel. For a start, it doesn't feature Lord Peter Wimsey, secondly, it's a collaboration and finally, it's an epistolary novel, a novel that consists entirely of letters and other documents, without traditional narration.

Fittingly, I read it in unusual circumstances, while waiting for my partner Sandra to be admitted to the hospital (she has since gotten better again). She had brought The Documents in the Case along with her but couldn't read herself, while I hadn't brought anything to read; since most of the admission procedure consists of waiting, I was glad I had this to read.

Epistolary novels are both hard to write and hard to read. Hard to write, because so many of the usual writer tools and tricks are not available --there's no omnipresent narrator in a letter, no way of switching viewpoints and you need to make the letter believeable enough to fool your readers. It's possible to get away with writing big honking letters and then let narration slowly creep in again, but it's not the done thing.

It's hard for the reader, because the format is so different from what we are used to in a novel. Also, I personally at least find it mildy irritating to read any collection of letters anyway, let alone one that attempts to be a novel. Having said that, Sayers and Eustance manage quite well here. They take full advantage of the ease of misdirection writing an epistolary novel affords a clever writer. As in real life, the various letter writers who function as narrators have their own, not necessarily correct views and see things through the lens of their own prejudices, likes and dislikes.

The plot itself is relatively simple. George Harrison is a keen amateur mushroom expert, often going out into the English countryside to find musharooms, study them and eat the edible ones. Yet one day he makes a mistake, confusing a poisonous, deadly mushroom for its harmless relative and dies of it. But was it truly a mistake or something more sinister?

Well, it is a Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel, so George's cousin, Paul Harrison is more than justified in researching the circumstances of his uncles's death. The book itself is supposedly a result of the investigation, "the documents in the case".

In some ways, The Documents in the Case is somewhat of a more humane novel than most of the Wimsey ones, if only because the main characters are far more involved with the case than Lord Peter ever is with his own; the victim was their friend or husband, rather than just a name.

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Webpage created 14-03-2005, last updated 23-05-2005
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