Anybody who loves classic British detective fiction must long since have developed a strategy for sidestepping its little anti-Semitic asides. Rather than simply leap out of her seat whenever Jews are mentioned, or give up the genre entirely, the hardened (or addicted) reader draws lines and makes careful, sometimes apologetic distinctions.
When the young protagonist of Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands, a 1903 maritime political thriller that's often called the first suspense novel, goes to buy oilskins in "a villainous den in a back street, which the shopman said they always recommended, where a dirty and bejewelled Hebrew chaffered with me, beginning at 18 shillings, for a pair of reeking orange slabs," we sigh and say Childers is just a one-novel author showing his limitations--not enough reason to pass up a thrilling yarn. When Agatha Christie refers to a character's "thick Semitic lips," we survey her more nuanced Jewish characters and hope against hope that she is just being lazy. And when Josephine Tey has her star detective Alan Grant observe that the unknown man who killed a bystander with a dagger must be a "Levantine" because "Levantines were notoriously vulnerable in their feelings; an insult rankled for a lifetime, a straying smile on the part of their adored, and they ran amok," we can write it off as a reflection of the pervasive racialism that dominated polite culture before World War II.
But a strategy like this must break down somewhere, and none of these responses fully accounts for the Jews who curiously populate the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers, widely considered the queen of the so-called Golden Age of British detective fiction, the great flowering between the world wars of whodunits and crime puzzles from the likes of Sayers, Christie, Tey and Robert Barnard that so capture the flavor of those times. Sayers's novels and short stories featuring the erudite sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey have remained hugely popular and have been repeatedly reissued. They are beloved for both their ingenious plots--whose solutions draw on expert knowledge of subjects ranging from hemophilia to bell-ringing--and the sparkling romance between their two principal characters.
Sometime during World War II, Sayers gave up writing Lord Peter stories, abandoned detective fiction altogether and turned her hand to translating Dante from Italian. She wrote some plays with Christian themes, including The Man Born to Be King, a modernized take for the BBC on the life of Jesus. When she died at age 64, she had become a fearsome public intellectual and a popular Christian apologist in the mode of C. S. Lewis.
I came to Sayers late, stumbling upon a couple of battered 50-cent copies of Gaudy Night and Busman !r Honeymoon at a flea market, and fell promptly down a rabbit hole of obsession with the world of the aristocratic Lord Peter--and with the baffling place of Jews within that world. Because I was reading the series back-to-front, starting with the honeymoon and working my way backward through the courtship to the introduction, it took me awhile to notice that the depictions of Jews in Sayers's stories didn't fit any of my familiar categories. They did not read like regrettable lapses by an otherwise wise and temperate author. Nor were they quite accounted for by the pre-WWII British habit, so jarring to the modern ear, of expressing the simplest physical or emotional descriptions in terms of racial categories. And they seemed to grow in importance as I moved back in time and the characters (and the author) got younger.
Just how did the celebrated detective novelist actually feel about her Jewish characters--and why, in these books, can't she seem to shut up about them? Why are there so many? Something is going on, something more complicated and personal than casual anti-Semitism and a good deal more interesting.
Sayers wrote the 11 Lord Peter novels between 1923 and 1937, gradually transforming the classic Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery into something more psychologically nuanced. Her hero, Lord Peter, is the gadabout second son of a duke, living in luxury in a Piccadilly flat with his manservant Bunter, collecting rare books, tasting wines, solving mysteries as a distraction--we gradually learn--from serious emotional damage sustained in the Great War. He's a wonderful character, and he made Sayers's fame and fortune. By the fifth novel, she had given Peter a...