Dorothy Sayers was an only child, born on 13 June 1893 at the Head Master’s House, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Her father, the Rev. Henry Sayers, M.A., was a chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School. She grew up in the tiny village of Bluntisham-cum-Earith in Huntingdonshire after her father was given the living there as rector. The church graveyard next to the elegant Regency rectory features the surnames of several characters from her mystery The Nine Tailors, and the nearby River Great Ouse and the Fens invite comparison with the book’s vivid description of a massive flood around the village.
In 1912, Sayers won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied modern languages and medieval literature. She finished with first-class honours in 1915. Women could not be awarded degrees at that time, but Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the position changed a few years later; in 1920, she graduated as an MA. Her experience of Oxford academic life eventually inspired her penultimate Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night.
In 1923, she published her first novel, Whose Body, which introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, her hero for fourteen volumes of novels and short stories. Writing full time she rose to be the doyen of crime writers and in due course president of the Detection Club. Her work, carefully researched and widely varied, included poetry, the editing of collections with her erudite introductions on the genre, and the translating of the Tristan of Thomas from mediaeval French. She admired E. C. Bentley and G. K. Chesterton and numbered among her friends T. S. Eliot, Charles Williams, and C. S. Lewis.
Gaudy Night was to be the culmination of the Wimsey saga, but her friend Muriel St. Clare Byrne persuaded her to collaborate in putting Lord Peter on the stage in Busman’s Honeymoon. The play was successfully launched in December 1936, and she gave up crime writing except for the book of the play and three short stories.
Sayers died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis on 17 December 1957 at the same place, aged 64. Her remains were cremated and her ashes buried beneath the tower of St Anne’s Church, Soho, London, where she had been a churchwarden for many years. Upon her death it was revealed that her nephew, John Anthony, was her son; he was the sole beneficiary under his mother’s will.
With year of first publication
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1931)
- Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935)
- Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
Short story collections
- Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)
- Hangman’s Holiday (1933; also contains non-Wimsey stories)
- In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939; also contains non-Wimsey stories)