The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers

Novel's fascinating format makes for a compelling and ingenious murder mystery

The Documents in the Case is notable for its experimental format
The Documents in the Case is
notable for its experimental format
A bundle of letters and statements can be daunting to sort out in real life, but when a reader is presented with the same challenge at the beginning of a detective novel, they might be put off from even starting to read the story.

However, when the author of the novel happens to be Dorothy L Sayers, I think most readers would probably be prepared to make the effort.  

In The Documents in the Case, the sixth detective novel by the author, which was published in 1930, there will be a murder to be solved eventually, and two men will join forces to play detective. But that is about all this story has in common with Dorothy’s other detective novels featuring her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, who doesn’t appear in this book at all.

The murder victim is not discovered until page 135. By then Dorothy has introduced us to the main protagonists in the story by presenting us with a succession of letters that they have written to other people, which will eventually become part of a bundle of evidence presented to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

We read the letters written by a young writer, John Munting, to his fiancée, Elizabeth Drake, letters written by a middle-aged spinster, Agatha Milsom, to her sister, Olive, and letters from an older man, George Harrison, to his son, Paul. In theory, if we are astute enough, we should have all the information we need to solve the crime when it finally takes place.

We learn a lot from all the letters about the relationship between an older man and his young wife, information that is destined to be sent to Sir Gilbert Pugh, Director of Public Prosecutions, which will ultimately lead to a murder conviction and a hanging.

Robert Eustace, the pen name for Eustace Robert Burton, a doctor and a writer of crime and mystery novels himself, was credited by Dorothy with supplying her with the plot idea for The Documents in the Case and with also giving her the supporting medical and scientific details to use.

The concept for the book was based on the ingenious idea of giving the reader all the evidence that the DPP will trawl through before deciding whether there is a case to answer.

I think Dorothy makes a success of this because she is a superb writer. Some of the letters written by the spinster, Agatha Milsom, who is working as housekeeper to the married couple, Mr and Mrs Harrison, that she sent regularly to her sister, Olive, reminded me of the letters in Jane Austen’s novels, written by characters to each other that help to move the plot forward without every scene having to be played out. Using the multiple viewpoints of the letter writers not only establishes their own characters with the reader, but also reveals their real opinions of the other characters.

My only, very slight criticism of the book is that the scientific evidence put before the reader at the end of the story was lengthy and hard for a non-scientist, such as myself, to understand completely. But I mention this as just the faintest of criticisms because I still persevered and read through it all and I think I just about understood it.

Sayers was given the idea for The
Documents in the Case
by a doctor friend
The story is essentially about people and their relationships and reveals how people see things very differently. The fact that there is a murder and therefore a whodunit element to the story was a bonus for me. Without it, there wouldn’t have been much incentive to read all the letters and statements!

Pulling out the essential truth about the case from each character’s version of events is a task that falls to the victim’s son, Paul, with the reader going along for the ride. I found The Documents in the Case to be a compelling story and a real page turner and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

It transpires that the victim died as a result of being poisoned by a substance that could either have been administered deliberately, or that they could have consumed it accidentally. It falls to scientific analysis of the poison to prove whether it was administered to the victim deliberately, or whether it could have been present in food naturally, and it is not easy for the pathologist to find out the truth.

Sadly, Dorothy is said to have been disappointed with the way The Documents in the Case turned out and she confessed to wishing she had done better with the brilliant plot she had been given by her doctor and writer friend, Eustace.

In my opinion she did extremely well with it, but it is up to other readers to pronounce their own, final judgments.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

An award winning masterpiece by the Queen of Crime

The latest HarperCollins reprint of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The latest HarperCollins reprint
of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Agatha Christies’s sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was voted ‘the best crime novel ever’ by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 2013.

Published in 1926, the book remains Agatha’s best known and most controversial novel because of its ingenious final twist, which had a significant impact on the detective fiction genre and has been imitated by many other writers since.

Agatha, who died on 12 January, 1976 - 47 years ago today - has become famous for being the supreme exponent of the old-fashioned English crime novel. Her skill in constructing complex and puzzling plots and her ability to deceive readers until the very last page, or paragraph, are unequalled.

But this third Poirot novel, narrated by the local physician, Doctor Sheppard, in the absence of Captain Hastings, who has gone to start a new life in the Argentine, is considered by many readers and critics to be her masterpiece.

Wealthy businessman turned country squire Roger Ackroyd lives in a charming English country village, where dark secrets and dangerous emotions lurk beneath the apparently calm surface.

When Ackroyd is murdered, stabbed in the neck while sitting in his study after a dinner party at his home, there are, as usual, plenty of suspects.  

Poirot, who has just come to live in the village, after retiring to grow marrows, lives next door to Dr Sheppard. He is asked by a member of Ackroyd’s family to investigate the murder because they are worried the police will get it wrong. Suspicion has fallen on Ackroyd’s stepson, Ralph, who is a popular young man locally.

Agatha Christie died 47 years ago today at the age of 85
Agatha Christie died 47 years
ago today at the age of 85
After many twists and turns, Poirot gathers all the suspects together in his sitting room after dinner one night and reveals the extraordinary and unexpected identity of the killer.

According to The Home of Agatha Christie, the author’s own website, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was ‘the book that changed Agatha Christie’s career’. It was the first of her novels to be published by William Collins, which later became part of HarperCollins, who remain Agatha’s publishers today and attracted enormous attention in the media at the time.

Following her death, Agatha Christie's body was buried four days later after a service at St Mary’s Church in the village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire.

The inscription on her tombstone is a quotation from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queen:

‘Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,

Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please.’

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The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter by Wilkie Collins

An early attempt at detective fiction by a Victorian novelist

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins
by John Everett Millais
The English novelist Wilkie Collins is held in great respect by crime fiction fans as one of the first exponents of the genre.

Although he is chiefly remembered for his sensation literature, of which his 1860 novel The Woman in White is a famous example, he also wrote The Moonstone in 1868, which is often talked of as the first English detective novel, because there is a crime at the heart of the story, a variety of suspects and an early example of a detective in the character of Sergeant Cuff.

Collins became a friend of Charles Dickens and contributed short stories to Household Words, a publication owned and edited by Dickens. He wrote The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter, originally called The Fourth Poor Traveller, for the Christmas edition of Household Words in 1854.

This is considered a very early attempt at detective fiction by Collins, as it was 14 years before he wrote The Moonstone.

The affair of the stolen letter is related by a lawyer to an artist to pass the time while he is having his portrait painted.

The lawyer, Mr Boxsious, tells the artist that he has not always been comfortable financially, or successful professionally, and that he got his first lucky break when he earned £500 as a reward for retrieving a stolen letter that was being used to try to extort money from a young man of his acquaintance.

The man was about to marry a beautiful young woman when he received a disturbing note in which the sender claimed he had a letter that would implicate the woman’s dead father in an attempted forgery. The sender threatened to pass the letter on to a newspaper unless the man paid him £500.

The lawyer regales the artist with the story of how he outwitted the man who stole the letter, a disreputable clerk who used to work for the woman’s father. By clever detective work the lawyer was able to work out where the letter was hidden and restore it to the daughter of the man who wrote it.

Some see The Moonstone as
the first English detective novel 
In just 35 pages, Collins describes the meeting between the lawyer and the artist, brings up the subject of the lawyer’s opportunity to earn £500 at the start of his career, and sets the stage for him to tell the artist the story of how he executed an elaborate search and surveillance plan to gain access to the blackmailer’s hotel room and steal back the letter.

After a meticulous search, he uses the only clue he has been able to find, a puzzling numerical inscription, and applies it to the pattern of the carpet. This enables him to discover the hiding place of the stolen letter, for which the blackmailer was demanding £500.

The lawyer then thinks of ‘a nice irritating little plan’ and replaces the letter with a piece of paper on which he has written ‘change for a five hundred pound note.’

Wilkie Collins was born on this day - 8 January - in 1824 in London. He entered Lincoln’s Inn to study Law and was called to the Bar, but he never practised as a lawyer, preferring to write for a living instead.

His first contribution to Household Words was the story, A Terribly Strange Bed, published in 1852.

His Christmas story, The Fourth Poor Traveller, was reprinted under the title of The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter in the first collection of short stories by Collins, After Dark, which was published in 1856. 

An edition of The Lawyer's Story of a Stolen Letter is available from Amazon.

The Moonstone is available from or



Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson

Solving a seemingly impossible murder

Dickson's story appears in the collection A Surprise for Christmas
Dickson's story appears in the
collection A Surprise for Christmas
Golden Age mystery writers wrote many excellent short stories as well as the novels they were famous for, and they loved to turn their hand to writing short, seasonal detective stories for the periodicals published over the festive season.

Persons or Things Unknown was written by one of only two American writers admitted to the prestigious British Detection Club, Carter Dickson, who was much admired by his fellow Golden Age writers for his locked room mysteries.

Carter Dickson was one of the pen names for John Dickson Carr, who lived in England and wrote most of his novels and short stories with English settings. He wrote Persons or Things Unknown for The Sketch, a weekly illustrated journal, for their Christmas edition in 1938.

Dickson served up a locked room mystery in a spooky setting with a historical background, which is perfect entertainment for whiling away an afternoon in December or January in front of a fire as a guest in someone’s unfamiliar, and not particularly comfortable, house.

Persons or Things Unknown has the reign of King Charles II as its background. When it was written, it was far less common to combine mystery with history, particularly in short story form, than it is now.

John Dickson Carr wrote under a number of pseudonyms
John Dickson Carr wrote under
a number of pseudonyms 
A group of guests have gathered after dinner in the drawing room of ‘a long, damp, high-windowed house, hidden behind a hill in Sussex.’  Their host has just bought the property and the party after Christmas is also meant to be a house warming.

One of the guests, who narrates the story, tells us that the smell of the past was in the house and that you could not get over the idea that ‘someone was following you about.’

The host alarms the group of guests by saying he wants to know if it is safe for anyone to sleep in the little room at the top of the stairs. He says he has ‘a bundle of evidence’ about ‘something queer’ that once happened in the room.

He then tells them he has been given a diary in which the writer says he once saw a man hacked to death in the little room at the top of the stairs. The man’s body is alleged to have had 13 stab wounds caused by ‘a weapon that wasn’t there, which was wielded by a hand that wasn’t there’.

The diary tells the story of the beautiful young daughter of the house, who was once engaged to a local landowner. Then along came a fashionably dressed young man from the court of the newly restored King Charles II, who fell for her and was determined to win her hand in marriage. The subsequent dramatic events led to a seemingly impossible murder in the little room at the top of the stairs, which used to be called The Ladies’ Withdrawing Room. It was a mystery that no one had ever been able to solve.

The host then puts all the facts he has been able to discover before his guests, who include a policeman and an historian, and invites them to come up with a solution.

The Hollow Man is regarded as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
The Hollow Man is regarded
as Dickson Carr's masterpiece
John Dickson Carr was born in Uniontown in Pennsylvania in 1906 and moved to England in the 1930s, where he married an Englishwoman and began writing mysteries. He was published under the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

Most of his novels had English settings and English characters and his two best-known fictional detectives, Dr Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were both English. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers of Golden Age mysteries. He was influenced by his enthusiasm for the stories of Gaston Leroux and became a master of the locked room detective story in which a seemingly impossible crime is solved. His 1935 Dr Fell mystery, The Hollow Man, is considered his masterpiece and was selected as the best locked room mystery of all time in 1981 by a panel of 17 mystery authors and reviewers.

Persons or Things Unknown was republished by the British Library in 2020 in A Surprise For Christmas, a collection of seasonal mysteries selected by the crime writer Martin Edwards.    

In his introduction to Persons or Things Unknown, Edwards says the author ‘blends historical atmosphere with a pleasing locked room mystery in the form of an inverted detective story of the kind first popularised by R. Austin Freeman.’

In my opinion, this pleasing locked room mystery by Carter Dickson, which takes up just 20 pages of the book, would be the perfect post lunch, or post dinner, winter diversion.

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