The Documents in the Case
|Author||Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace|
|Genre||Mystery Epistolary novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
The Documents in the Case is a 1930 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. It is the only one of Sayers's twelve major crime novels not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, her most famous detective character.
This is an epistolary novel, told primarily in the form of letters between some of the characters. This collection of documents—hence the novel's title—is explained as a dossier of evidence collected by the victim's son as part of his campaign to obtain justice for his father.
The main narrator, Munting, takes rooms with Lathom, an artist acquaintance. The landlord and downstairs neighbour, Harrison, is a staid, middle-aged widower who has married again; his new wife is young, attractive, passionate and rather foolish. Lathom and Mrs Harrison begin an affair, the husband suspecting nothing, and Lathom paints a remarkable portrait of her. Creeping downstairs to meet his mistress one night, Lathom encounters the Harrisons' live-in spinster companion, who mistakes him for Munting in the dark and makes accusations of assault. Glad of an excuse to leave a situation he finds distasteful, Munting moves away and marries his fiancée, and Lathom shortly thereafter embarks for a long stay in Paris. Lathom's portrait of Mrs Harrison is exhibited publicly, making his reputation on the London art scene.
Some time later Munting meets Lathom by chance in London and learns that he is holidaying with Harrison at the latter's isolated cottage in Devon. Harrison's hobby is foraging for wild food, and he is an expert on edible mushrooms. Lathom persuades Munting to accompany him back to Devon, where they find Harrison dead, apparently having cooked and eaten poisonous fungi by mistake. However Harrison's son Paul suspects that Lathom and his stepmother have conspired to murder Harrison, and Munting is drawn unwillingly into the investigation. He discovers accidentally that muscarine - the poison that killed Harrison - can exist in a natural or a synthetic form. The molecules of both forms are asymmetrical; however the natural form is optically active - consisting of only one molecular form; the synthetic form is racemic - with equal quantities of both types of molecule; and the two forms can be distinguished only by using polarised light. The muscarine consumed by Harrison proves to be synthetic, indicating that the mushrooms he ate were poisoned deliberately. Letters between Mrs Harrison and Lathom indicate that she manipulated him into the killing by claiming that she was expecting his child. Lathom is hanged for murder.
Characters in "The Documents in the Case"
- John Munting – an aspiring young writer
- Harwood Lathom – a struggling artist, acquaintance of Munting
- George Harrison – middle-aged downstairs neighbour of Lathom and Munting
- Margaret Harrison – considerably younger than her husband. Engaged in a secret affair with Lathom
- Agatha Milsom – live-in spinster companion of Mrs Harrison
- Paul Harrison – engineer; adult son of Mr Harrison by a previous marriage.
Dorothy Sayers' co-author, under the pseudonym of Robert Eustace, was Dr Eustace Barton, a physician who also wrote medico-legal thrillers. Barton suggested to Sayers the scientific theme crucial to the novel's dénouement, which concerns the difference between a naturally produced organic compound and the corresponding synthetic material, and the use of the polariscope to distinguish between them. He travelled to University College Hospital in August 1928 to consult colleagues and see a practical demonstration of the effect.
As a practising Christian, Sayers was pleased with the religious-scientific theme offered to her by Eustace, which was based on the idea that the asymmetry of living molecules was an indication of the hand of God in creation. She intended this to be a major novel.
"[The idea] touches the very key note of the mystery of the appearance of Life on this planet. There seems no escape from the conclusion that at some wonderful moment in the evolutionary process a Directive Force-From-Without entered upon the scene of Life itself."— Dorothy L Sayers, Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul. Barbara Reynolds, Hodder & Stoughton 1993, chapter 15
However, she was ultimately disappointed with the way the book turned out. "In my heart," she wrote, "I know I have made a failure of it... I wish I could have done better with the brilliant plot.".
- 1930, Victor Gollancz, Hardback