The Secret Life Of Eric The Skull: Dorothy L. Sayers And The Detection Club
Dorothy L. Sayers Society Lecture, delivered 23 March, 2011
This may strike you as an odd beginning: Eric the Skull is a survivor. Nothing else from the founding of the Detection Club in 1930 has made it into the twenty-first century. The enormous scarlet-lined black cloak tailored to G.K.Chesterton’s physique is lost and had to be replaced; the black candles are burnt to nothing; the order of initiation has been rewritten several times over; even the original minute book disappeared in the 1940s. And of course the playful bunch of writers who thought it all up, principally Anthony Berkeley Cox, Dorothy L Sayers and Monsignor Ronald Knox, have long since written their final chapters.
Eric is the last link with those blithe spirits. I was tempted to ask our current President, Simon Brett, if I could borrow Eric for this event, and then I thought the responsibility would be too much. What if I were stopped by the police on the way and asked to explain how a real human skull with red light bulbs for eyes came to be on the passenger seat? What if Eric was confiscated? What if he was dropped? He’s over a hundred years old. Even more alarming, what if he spoke to me?
Considering the eminence of the Detection Club among literary societies, it strikes me as surprising that so little is written about it. After being invited here and offering to speak on this topic I naturally looked at the main biographies of Miss Sayers. I found little more than a page or so describing the club in general terms. The collected letters have a few references to functions and writing projects, but not many. That’s a pity, because the club featured strongly in her life long after she finished writing detective stories. She was hugely enthusiastic, a regular at all the meetings and a great champion of the club’s traditions. And there’s no shortage of entertaining stories about what she got up to.
There is even less about the club in biographies of Chesterton and Knox. One of the reasons may be that so much of the original source material is lost. Let’s be frank: the club itself is confused over its origins. For years it was thought to have been founded in 1932, when the first constitution was drawn up. This date still appears on the notepaper. But doubts were raised when the late Julian Symons quoted 1932 in the introduction to a Detection Club book called Verdict of Thirteen. The date was challenged. Confident that he was right, Julian wrote to the Sunday Times offering a bottle of champagne if anyone could produce proof of an earlier origin. Would you believe it? – some anorak found a letter to The Times Literary Supplement from members of the club dated 1930. Even now, there are whispers that 1929 is a possibility. Perhaps it would be helpful if Eric could speak.
What is undisputed is that in 1928 the writer Anthony Berkeley Cox, known to us now as Anthony Berkeley or Francis Iles, suggested to a number of eminent writers of detective stories that they should dine together regularly in London restaurants. Up to twenty attended. Prominent among them was Dorothy L Sayers, the author of three detective stories. At 31, she was the same age as Berkeley; in fact they were born within eight days of each other.
At about the same time, there was a flurry of interest in formulating rules for the detective story. It seems to have started in America, as so many things do. In 1923 a magazine editor and art expert called Willard Huntington Wright suffered a breakdown. His convalescence took two years and – of all things – his way back from the brink was to read over 2000 detective stories and works of criminology. Out of all this scholarship emerged a crime writer with the impressive pen-name SS Van Dine and a list of twenty rules for writing detective stories. He published them in 1928. They were more in the negative vein than the positive. No love interest, no servants as the culprit, no professional criminals, no accidents or suicides, pseudo-science, spiritualism, secret societies. Even long descriptions were banned. To be fair, Van Dine applied the rules to his own writing. His detective was called Philo Vance, an Oxford graduate said to be a young social aristocrat, the American counterpart of Lord Peter Wimsey. And to be unfair, the books were dreadfully solemn and burdened with footnotes and Vance isn’t fit to shine Lord Peter’s shoes. Famously, the poet Ogden Nash wrote: “Philo Vance/ Needs a kick in the pance.”
Van Dine’s twenty rules may well have been discussed at those London dinner parties. One of the diners was a Catholic priest, Father Ronald Knox, who after three detective stories wrote his own set of rules. Like so many of the young people (when I say “young” I mean in their thirties) who founded the Detection Club, Knox was an extraordinary individual. Evelyn Waugh called him “the cleverest boy who ever passed through Eton”. Whilst still at Oxford, he delivered a satirical piece on various inconsistencies in the Sherlock Holmes stories and sent a copy to their author. When Conan Doyle eventually wrote back to say how amused he was, he added, “I am amazed that anyone should spend such pains on such material.” It is widely held that Knox was the first of that slightly crazed army of Sherlockians who treat Holmes as a real human being. Knox later reflected, “The sad irony is that my one permanent achievement was setting the groundwork for all the Sherlockians that followed.” After Oxford he worked in military intelligence before becoming an Anglican chaplain. In 1917 he converted to Catholicism, was ordained and became the Catholic Chaplain to the University, ultimately attaining the ecclesiastical title of Monsignor. Yet Knox was never pious. When he was granted an audience with the Pope he talked to him for a full half-hour about the Loch Ness Monster.
Tongue firmly in cheek, he called his ten rules A Detective Story Decalogue and they appeared in 1929. They were to form the basis of the Detection Club Initiation Ceremony so they are worth repeating here:
- 1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- 2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- 3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- 4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- 5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- 6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- 7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- 8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- 9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- 10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
I wish there was time to give you Knox’s commentary on each of the commandments. He cites exceptions to most of them and he admits that the ban on Chinamen is baffling. “Why this should be,” he writes, “I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I can only offer it as a fact of observation that if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of “the slit-like eyes of Chin-Loo” you had best put it down at once; it is bad.”
To return to our diners, the idea of a more formal club must have been sprouting in the mind of Anthony Berkeley, because as early as 1929 he published The Poisoned Chocolates Case, one of the classics of the period, about a group of writers in a club called the Crimes Circle. The book is often said to be poking fun at the Detection Club, but this can’t be so if we accept that the club was founded in 1930.
The evidence for 1930 is strong, and was put to the club itself in a memorable after-dinner speech five years ago by Douglas Greene, the biographer of John Dickson Carr. Greene informed us that the Anthony Berkeley papers reveal that he wrote to G.K.Chesterton on December 27, 1929, proposing the formation of the club and inviting Chesterton to be Honorary President. However – and there’s always a “however” where the Detection Club is concerned – a letter from Berkeley to Dorothy L. Sayers was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2008, and it discussed the proposal to invite Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be Honorary President. It was dated 17 January, 1930, three weeks after Chesterton was offered the job. What are we to make of that?
The full contents of the auctioned letter are not known, but it is of interest that Conan Doyle might have been the first choice. In fact he was far too ill in 1930 to have accepted the honour. He died in July. It’s intriguing to wonder what Conan Doyle, with his strong belief in spiritualism, would have thought about a secret ritual using a real human skull.
No question, however, that the club was up and running early in 1930, and was a hive of industry. From the beginning the members had the firm intention of using their talent and experience to raise funds and acquire their own club premises. Dorothy L Sayers was one of the prime movers when a round-robin radio serial called Behind the Screen was broadcast on the BBC National Programme, beginning in June. The six writers read out their own contributions; episode two must have been an ordeal for the shy Agatha Christie. Each 15 minute episode was printed in The Listener the same week. Another radio series called The Scoop was ready by the end of the year and went out in January, 1931. Also in 1931, the club’s book, The Floating Admiral, appeared, written by fourteen members, among them Chesterton, Sayers, Christie, Knox and Berkeley. Eighty years on, a new edition has just been published.
By now you’re starting to wonder about Eric the Skull and the secret initiation ceremony. Dare I divulge what really takes place? After all, Miss Sayers herself declared, in her preface to The Floating Admiral, “… wild horses would not drag from me any revelation of the solemn ritual …”
Even now, in 2011, some members of the club are terrified of saying too much and being drummed out, or worse. But in reality, dear old absent-minded G.K.Chesterton, the club’s first president (who once sent a telegram to his wife: “Am in Market Harborough stop where ought I to be?”), gave the whole thing away in an article in The Strand magazine as early as 1933.
“As the one who has more than once had the honour of imposing the oaths of admission on new members of the Society, I take a pride in setting out these conditions of membership in their actual form; thereby setting a good example to the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, the Red-Badgers, the Blue Buffaloes, the Green Gorillas, the League of the Left-handed Haberdashers, the Association of Agnostic Albinos, and all the other secret societies …
The Ruler shall say to the Candidate: Is it your firm desire to become a Member of the Detection Club?
The Candidate shall answer in a loud voice: That is my desire.
Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Will you honour the King’s English?
Is there anything you hold sacred?
Then the Candidate, having named a Thing which he holds of peculiar sanctity, the Ruler shall ask: Do you swear by (Here the Ruler shall name the Thing)
to observe faithfully all these promises which you have made so long as you are a Member of the Club?
But if the Candidate is not able to name a Thing which he holds sacred, then the Ruler shall propose the Oath in this manner following: Do you as you hope to increase your Sales, swear to observe faithfully all these promises which you have made, so long as you are a Member of the Club?
Then the Candidate shall solemnly swear: All this I solemnly do swear. And I do furthermore promise and undertake to be loyal to the Club, neither purloining nor disclosing any plot or secret communicated to me before publication by any Member, whether under the influence of drink or otherwise.
If there is any Member present who objects to the Proposal let him or her so declare.
If there be no objector, then shall the Ruler say to the Members: Do you then acclaim A N Other as a Member of our Club?
Then the Company’s Crier, or the Member appointed thereto by the Secretary, shall lead the Company in such cries of approval as are within his compass or capacity. When the cries cease, whether from lack of breath or any other cause, the Ruler shall make this declaration: A N Other, you are duly elected a Member of the Detection Club, and if you fail to keep your promises may other writers anticipate your plots, may your publishers do you down in your contracts, may total strangers sue you for libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and may your sales continually diminish. Amen.”
There it is, then. The original initiation ceremony. You heard it from the first President. My lips are sealed. It has long been speculated that Dorothy L Sayers had a considerable hand in the drafting of the ceremony. This can now be confirmed thanks to the discovery of a letter in the Chesterton papers at the British Library. It is from Anthony Berkeley to Chesterton, inviting him to attend the next dinner, and is dated 1 May, 1931: “… a new member, Miss Helen Simpson, is to be initiated that evening in due form as laid down in a most ceremonious ritual drawn up by Miss Dorothy Sayers, whereby most solemn pledges are required touching the art and honour of detective fiction, which I think may be amusing.”
Undoubtedly, Father Knox’s Ten Commandments had a significant influence on the content of the ceremony – did you notice the Chinamen? – but as James Brabazon remarks in his biography of Sayers, a document exists “in Dorothy’s writing with crossings-out and alterations that suggest she drafted the ceremonies. The style is certainly hers.”
But what of Eric? you are thinking. Where does he come into it? All will be revealed.
Just for a moment let’s consider the more serious intention behind the ceremony. The Chinamen are the clue. The nineteen-twenties are often said to be the start of the Golden Age of the detective story. Christie and Sayers in particular transformed popular fiction. But in 1928, they were just beginning. Christie had published seven novels, Sayers three. The field was dominated by the sensational thrillers of Edgar Wallace, Sax Rohmer and “Sapper”, the creator of Bulldog Drummond. Blood and thunder; thud and blunder. They were huge sellers. Rohmer wrote endlessly about the so-called yellow peril and the Chinese villain, Dr Fu-Manchu. Death-rays, hypnotism, trap-doors, super-criminals, mumbo-jumbo and jiggery-pokery were the stock-in-trade of these writers. Chesterton commented in his Strand magazine article, “I do not fancy that the club would have fitted in very well with a colossal cosmopolitan publicity, like that of Mr Edgar Wallace. I say so, not so much because he was a best-seller, as because he was a mass-producer. We have all enjoyed his ingenious plots, but there was inevitably something in his style of plotting that recalls our shyness in the presence of the Omnipresent Chinaman or the League of the Scarlet Scorpion. He was a huge furnace and factory of fiction; imposing by its scale, but not suited to this particular purpose. It would be like going with one’s family and friends on a motor tour and finding oneself escorted by all the cars out of the factories of Mr Ford.” I dare say there was some envy of the thriller writers on the part of the detective story writers, but there was also a wish to stake out their own territory. Thrills and suspense, for sure, but in a form that would appeal to the more discerning reader with a liking for puzzles and fair play.
The original members really were the crème de la crème of detective story writing. Only Conan Doyle’s name is missing, for the reason I’ve explained. Apart from those already mentioned they included E.C.Bentley, Freeman Wills Crofts, R.Austin Freeman, A.E.W.Mason, A.A.Milne, Arthur Morrison, Baroness Orczy, John Rhode and Hugh Walpole. Others were soon added: Anthony Gilbert, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr and Nicholas Blake. Several of these supplied wicked insights into the real goings-on at the club.
It’s from Gladys Mitchell that I discovered what you’ve been patiently waiting to hear – the shocking truth about Eric. In an essay entitled “The Golden Age”, she revealed that (these are her words) the skull was stolen from one of the London teaching hospitals by Helen Simpson’s husband. We know from the letter I quoted earlier that Helen Simpson, an Australian writer living in London, joined in 1931 and I believe Eric must have been – let’s phrase it delicately – acquired for the club in 1937, when the second President, E.C.Bentley, the author of Trent’s Last Case, was enthroned in a ceremony worthy of Cecil B De Mille, devised by Miss Sayers, for the Order of Solemn Installation for a President of the Detection Club.
Prior to this occasion, I can find no mention of Eric, so I think he must have made his debut as one of the props. Helen Simpson’s light-fingered husband, incidentally, was a young Australian doctor called Denis Browne who became one of the most eminent physicians in the world, Sir Denis Browne, KCVO, known as the Father of Paediatric Surgery. It’s comforting to know that Eric was stolen by a great man, but it doesn’t altogether absolve us of the crime.
The Order of Solemn Installation ran to 29 pages, written in Miss Sayers’ own hand in black ink with underlining in red ink and diagrams showing the various orderings of the assembly and ceremonies and a list of the props required, torches, rope, pistol, sword and skull. Ngaio Marsh attended as a guest and in her autobiography described the excitement. There were “Wardens of the Naked Blade, the Hollow Skull and the Lethal Phial, with Dorothy L. Sayers as President brandishing and firing off a pistol.” I think the term “president” was used in the sense that DLS presided over the ceremony.
It was a good thing on that unforgettable evening that one of the members was Sir Norman Kendal, the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. Gladys Mitchell put it this way: “Panic stations, please. It was discovered, after everybody had gathered in the hotel for the Annual Dinner, that a vital bit of the regalia had been left in the club rooms … which bit, I do not remember, but we had to ring up a taxi and four of us got into it, including a very reluctant Sir Norman Kendal, and we pressed him into service for a very good reason. … Frantic questioning of members resulted in the dreadful discovery that nobody – positively nobody – had brought along his or her key to the rooms. This meant that we had to break in and this meant that Sir Norman’s presence at the scene of the crime was essential in case any inquisitive copper came along at the wrong time and asked the unanswerable question: ‘What’s all this, then?’”
Once Eric was in the club, so to speak, he was provided with a black cushion and a pair of eyes that were actually red torch-bulbs, battery-powered, rigged up by a writer who was a bit of a handyman, John Rhode. In another account of the 1937 induction, Ngaio Marsh recalled “… last of all, John Rhode with a grinning skull on a cushion … He (E.C.Bentley) took the oath & then close to my ear & without the slightest hint of warning, in a private drawing room at Grosvenor House at about 11p.m. on a summer evening Miss Dorothy Sayers loosed off her six-shooter. The others uttering primitive cries, waved their instruments, blunt, sharp and venomous, & John Rhode, by means of some hidden device, caused his skull to be lit up from within. And to my undying shame my agent laughed like a hyena.”
In real life Rhode was Major Street, MC, OBE. When he joined the club as one of the originals, he had seven novels to his credit. When he died, thirty-six years later, his output had risen to 144, and he also wrote 13 works of non-fiction. John Dickson Carr put his friend Rhode into a series of short stories for the Strand magazine as Colonel March, “a large amiable man (weight seventeen stone) with a speckled face, an interested blue eye, and a very short pipe projecting from under a cropped moustache, which might be sandy or grey”. Rhode was second only to Chesterton in size, among the men in the Detection Club. It would be ungallant to say who were the largest ladies.
With the proceeds from the various publications and broadcast material, the club had acquired its own rooms where the regalia could be safely stored. So Eric’s home became 31, Gerrard Street, described by Gladys Mitchell as “a couple of sleazy rooms . . . just off Leicester Square, and if there was no guest speaker we sat about on members’ discarded and disreputable furniture, chatted and drank beer, which was provided out of the club funds.” It doesn’t sound like an evening at the Athenaeum, and Gerrard Street wasn’t exactly London clubland. Father Knox described it as “a sort of garret … and on the night after we all received our keys, the premises were burglariously entered; why, or by whom, is still a mystery, but it was a good joke that it should happen to the Detection Club.” Gladys Mitchell recalled that “after one of the ordinary dinners, we women had to assert over the Gerrard Street ladies who had attached themselves to the coat-sleeves of our highly respectable men colleagues.”
It was always purely a social club, meeting once a month in the earliest days and bi-monthly later. Gladys Mitchell noted, ‘Conversation was, so far as I remember, remarkably free from “shop”. Nobody mentioned royalties, the misdemeanours or downright niggardliness of publishers, the dastardly behaviour of printers in the matters of punctuation, spelling and of leaving out a whole line in the middle of a paragraph, and this, I think, was because very few of us depended solely on our detective stories to earn us a living. Conversation, therefore, was on general subjects, but was always dominated by the strident tones of Miss Sayers, then really beginning to come into her own, not only as a good writer of detective stories, but, what was better, as a good writer of English.”
There is no doubt that Dorothy was the dominant figure, held in awe by many of the others, who referred to her as Miss Sayers. Josephine Bell, who knew DLS from her schooldays at Godolphin School, Salisbury, recalled being a guest, invited by Freeman Wills Crofts to the 1938 annual dinner: “She was no longer slim, but her hair was still black and straight and cut in a severe page-boy bob with a fringe. She wore a floor-length red velvet gown and long dangling gold ear-rings. Reluctant to recognise me when I addressed her as Dorothy and mentioned the Godolphin, she just said coldly, ‘Oh yes, Miss Bell?’ She had not forgotten me.”
Margery Allingham, who is often linked with Sayers and Christie, as one of the great Golden Age writers, told John Dickson Carr’s wife Clarice that Miss Sayers “absolutely frightened her to death.” Allingham’s biographer, Julia Thorogood, recalled that the self-conscious Margery attended one or two of the Detection Club’s functions in the 1930s and “scuttled home to Essex feeling inadequate.”
Yet most of the members who knew Miss Sayers recalled occasions when she charmed or ambushed them with her informality. John Dickson Carr and John Rhode were alone in the club room one evening when (these are the words of Dickson Carr) “Dorothy Sayers, after making some inroads on a bottle of scotch, arose like one addressing a Sunday School and recited the limerick about the young girl from Madras.”
E.C.Bentley was President for thirteen years. But by all accounts Dorothy was the power behind the throne. In 1939 she formed a War Emergency Committee and there exists a circular she sent to members that the next club lunch would be held at Pinoli’s restaurant on 14 February, 1940, “thanks to Hitler’s delay in bombing London”. However, when the Blitz began, she wrote to the secretary, Anthony Gilbert, suggesting that the minute books and some framed prints belonging to the club should be moved to a place of safety. No one has seen them since. I think Eric must have seen out the war in Gerrard Street.
When the club met in 1945 for the first time in five years, it seemed doubtful whether it would continue. Even in the pre-war period, the attendance at dinners had been about fourteen. Several of the regulars had died: Helen Simpson, Austin Freeman, Hugh Walpole – and those who had survived were getting on in years. John Dickson Carr, who was secretary, wrote: “The brethren shocked me by looking so much greyer and more worn, though it’s only to be expected. The fire seems to have gone out even of DLS, who is now devoting herself entirely to translating Dante.” Carr’s biographer, Douglas Greene, remarked, “Dante, in Carr’s estimation, was not nearly as important as a good detective novel.”
Fortunately, the fire hadn’t gone out. DLS persuaded the Church Commissioners to provide new club rooms at a more respectable address in Kingly Street, off Regent Street. Eric was dusted off in 1946 for the initiation of four new members.
Christianna Brand, the author of Green for Danger, a lively lady and a wonderful gossip, was one of the four and recalled one of her first Detection Club dinners: “I was by far the youngest member and fancied myself … as something of a glamour girl, considerably got up for the occasion. Was I then permitted a prominent part? – no, indeed. Might I even carry a candle, remaining speechless? – not even that. “Miss Brand can stand outside the door,” Miss Sayers would command in her ringing tones, “and turn off the lights at the proper time. The waiters never get it right. They are all potty.” I never got it right, either. “Miss Brand is potty,” she would say when all was disastrously over. Well, okay, but not for this had I got a new dress, year after year, and put blue on my eyelids. Miss Sayers herself had no blue on her eyelids, which anyway were masked by old-fashioned rimless pince-nez secured by a gold chain looping behind one ear; nor had she a new dress, but relied upon her non-dating black georgette beneath a Chinese tunic heavily embroidered in coloured silks and threads of gold. I remember that on my own initiation evening, a game was played in which one member fell dead and we were all invited to deduce the murderer. Miss Sayers, a great one for the boards, had elected herself to play the murderee, and finally cast herself down with a splendid thud on the restaurant carpet. This happened to be of a rather wavy blue pattern and I was consumed with muffled giggles at the sight of a huge Chinese lacquered whale threshing about in the shallows in its death throes.”
“. . . in Kingly Street,” Christianna continued, ‘we had the use of a room (and loo) in a clergy house. Miss Sayers was immensely High Church and very much in with the Cloth. I well remember going down the stairs on my way out and remarking that it was odd to see perambulators in the hall of a house devoted to the priesthood. ‘It is plain to see,’ said the booming voice from behind me, ‘that Miss Brand has been brought up a Roman Catholic.’ She was, in fact, a witty lady … and if one can’t help laughing at her a bit, it is always affectionately. She was always very nice to me. When everyone else was gone, we would sit on either side of the gas fire in that rather dingy little room, she with her stout knees apart and a considerable display of dark blue bloomer, and talk for hours about life and things. She would tell me about life at home, which consisted of ‘my poor husband, my fool of a woman (that was her secretary), and the gardener, ‘a pig.’ There was a popular misconception that she was “butch” but no, no, no, that’s not true – though many a time I have picked up a masculine hat and cried out, ‘One of the men has left this!’ only to be met by the boom, ‘That is my hat.’ But she had long been married and in her young days appears to have been well in advance of her times, distinctly on the permissive side and strictly with the gentlemen.”
One evening there was a medical emergency. Unusually, the ceremony was held in the Kingly Street club room and as the two new members left they stepped over the body of an elderly gentleman lying with his head in a pool of blood just outside the door. Let Christianna Brand take up the tale. “More jolly japes of the Detection Club, they thought, having been so recently subjected to the skull, the weapons, the oath and the President’s red robe; and wondered vaguely what response they were supposed to make now. Closer inspection, doubtless filled with merry laughter, revealed that there was in fact a genuine head wound from which the gore was only too freely pouring. The man is not dead or the wound would have stopped flowing would be the immediate reaction of any crime writer worthy of the name; the second being to touch nothing at the scene of the murder; and the third to look about for the blunt instrument. The two new members contented themselves with putting their heads back through the door and asking … whether there was a doctor in the room. Undeceived at last, all looked towards my dear husband, a surgeon, who duly got reluctantly to his feet, inwardly cursing my self-dramatising writing acquaintances. … We discovered the patient to be dear old Mr Punshon, E.R.Punshon, who tottering up the stone stair upon his private business, had fallen all the way down again and severely lacerated his scalp. My husband, groaning, dealt with all the gore, which remained in a slowly congealing pool on the clergy house floor, not an edifying sight for the occupants of the perambulators when they awakened in the morning. However, Miss Sayers had, predictably, just the right guest for such an event, a small, brisk lady, delighted to cope. … ‘Well, I think we can manage that all right. Can you find me a tablespoon?’ The club room was unaccountably lacking in tablespoons. I went out and diffidently offered a large fork. ‘A fork? Oh well …’ She bent again and studied the pool of gore. ‘I think we can manage,’ she said again cheerfully. ‘It’s splendidly clotted.’ I returned once more to the club room and closed the door; and I can only report that when it opened again, not a sign remained of any blood, anywhere. ‘I thought,’ said my husband, as we took our departure before even worse could befall, ‘that in your oath, you foreswore vampires.’ ‘She was only a guest,’ I said apologetically.
Inevitably there came the time when Dorothy succeeded to the Presidency, in 1949. This was a suitably grand occasion, not far short of a coronation. Imagine the terror that must have struck into the hearts of the hapless organisers. Everything was rehearsed several times over. Mercifully, the ceremony seems to have gone without a hitch. But as President, Dorothy took her role with high seriousness that some of the others found either intimidating or slightly ludicrous.
Michael Gilbert, who became a member that same year, wrote: “The only portion of the catechism that I can remember when Michael Innes and I joined in 1949 was the final question, asked by Dorothy with her eye fixed beadily on us – ‘Do you take anything seriously?” To which Michael Innes replied ‘The Master of Balliol’ and I ‘The President of the Law Society.’ These replies were apparently judged to be in order by Dorothy, as being in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. I emphasis this because it demonstrated to me one important aspect of her character – a mingling of the sort of sophistication in life and living that was appropriate to the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, with an immature, almost schoolgirlish pleasure in trivialities. One of these was an insistence that she should always be referred to in writing as Dorothy L. Sayers. To leave out the middle initial was a deadly insult. I never discovered why and was too timid to ask her.”
The pleasure in trivialities that Michael Gilbert noted must account for the enthusiasm Dorothy L Sayers gave to the club to the end of her life. She was its mainspring from 1930 to the end of her life. She had stopped writing crime novels in 1937, but for twenty years after that the club was one of her pet projects. After the war, things had reached such a low ebb that John Dickson Carr, the secretary, wrote to his friend Fred Dannay (also known as Ellery Queen) saying that the club had ceased to function officially. Not only did Miss Sayers rebuild it, but she was far-sighted enough to admit writers like Eric Ambler, Julian Symons and Andrew Garve to the ranks, none of whom could truly be described as writers of detective stories. Her passing, in 1957, was deeply and sincerely lamented.
It’s rather touching that Margery Allingham – who you’ll remember was so intimidated by the great lady – should have written in a letter in 1958, “Last week I went to the annual dinner of the Detection Club. It seemed very different without Miss Sayers, who was greatly missed … We inducted Miss Christie and Lord Gorell as joint Grand Masters and I had the honour of carrying the skull on a cushion. We are all a bit white-headed for such nonsense not to be in alarming taste, but I understand we are electing some youngsters next month.”
Yes, it took two people to fill Dorothy L’s shoes. Agatha Christie was an obvious choice, but, notoriously shy as she was, she would only take on the role if someone else would wear the cloak and perform the ceremonies. Lord Gorell had been a member since 1930, but in truth he was not fit to join the company of Chesterton, Bentley, Sayers or Christie – in fact he was secretly known in the club as Lord Sheep – but he did the honours. All the paraphernalia came out again for his installation. It was said to have been full of high drama, with a lugubrious piano introduction and mock-Shakespearean lines spoken by a dozen voices. Whether the Warden of the Firearm actually pulled the trigger, I cannot say. It was before my time. But I can attest that the presidents since then – Julian Symons, H R F Keating and Simon Brett – have stepped quietly into office without a shot being fired, which is no bad thing in any organisation.
These days, Eric has a quieter life. He is brought out just once a year in November for the annual dinner. We have seventy writers listed as members and of course their work encompasses every facet of crime fiction. It’s still an honour to be invited to join and we are proud to be associated with the bright young things who first thought of meeting over dinner more than eighty years ago.
The Floating Admiral, Certain Members of the Detection Club (Hodder & Stoughton, 1931) Introduction by Dorothy L Sayers
The Floating Admiral, new edition (Gregg Press, USA, 1979) Introduction by Christianna Brand
The Detection Club, G.K.Chesterton (The Strand Magazine, May, 1933)
Detection Medley, John Rhode (ed) (Hutchinson, 1939)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Maisie Ward (Sheed & Ward, 1944)
The Grandest Game in the World, John Dickson Carr (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March, 1963)
Black Beech and Honeydew; an Autobiography, Ngaio Marsh (Little Brown, 1965)
Verdict of Thirteen: a Detection Club Anthology, Julian Symons (Ed) (Faber & Faber, 1979)
Murderess Ink, Dilys Winn (Ed) (Workman, 1979) includes A Face-to-Face Encounter with Sayers, Josephine Bell
Dorothy L Sayers: a Biography, James Brabazon (Gollancz, 1981)
The Golden Age, Gladys Mitchell in Post Mortem Books Catalogue of Crime, 1981
The Scoop & Behind the Screen, introduction by Julian Symons (Gollancz, 1983)
Margery Allingham: a Biography, Julia Thorogood (Heinemann, 1991)
Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life & Soul, Barbara Reynolds (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993)
Dorothy L Sayers; the Centenary Celebration, Alzina Stone Dale (Ed) (Walker Books, 1993) includes A Personal Memoir, Michael Gilbert
John Dickson Carr: the Man Who Explained Miracles, Douglas G. Greene (Otto Penzler Books, 1995)
The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers (5 Vols), Barbara Reynolds (Ed) (1996-2000)
A Brief Historical Monograph on the Detection Club Initiation Ceremony, Gavin Lyall (unpublished, Detection Club archive)
The Detection Collection, Simon Brett (Ed) (Orion, 2005)
Unpublished speech by Douglas G Greene to the Detection Club, November, 2006
Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime, Joanne Drayton (Harper, 2009)