My Forgotten Book for today dates back just 20 years. It is an American mystery, Dorothy and Agatha, and the author is Gaylord Larsen. The eponymous ladies are, needless to add, Sayers and Christie, and the supporting cast includes various prominent members of the Detection Club.
Regular readers of this blog can probably guess at my delight when I learned of and tracked down this novel. Larsen’s lovely idea of setting a story around the Club offers terrific potential, and I wish I’d been the first to think of it. But of course, an idea is one thing. Executing it successfully is something very different.
The story opens with the discovery of a dead man at Dorothy’s home in Essex. He is found slumped over a typewriter, and there is with him an apparent suicide note. Was he a distraught lover? No, it turns out that murder has been done, and Sayers and in particular Agatha Christie are the ideal people to solve it.
The dust jacket claims that Larsen “has rendered every detail of character and place with uncanny accuracy”. Unfortunately, this is so far off the mark as to be hilarious. Take for instance the author’s apparent belief that Chester (where Agatha watches a soccer match...) is located in the Lake District, and is a shortish drive away from Essex. Now, I wouldn’t want to be excessively pedantic about the countless factual errors and historical and chronological anachronisms. When writing about a foreign country and different era, mistakes are almost inevitable, and I’m as likely to get things wrong as most other writers. But here there are just too many howlers, page after page, and most could have been avoided by elementary care. The bizarre portrayal of Oxford life, for instance, might be forgivable, but the repeated references to “Summerville College” and the suggestion that Anthony Berkeley was president of the Detection Club are just lazy. Whatever happened to fact-checking and the editorial process?
And then there is the dialogue. Where do I begin? Dorothy saying to Agatha, “We’re a couple of stodgy, middle-aged storytelling dames.”? Agatha saying to E.C. Bentley , “Edmund, I’m sorry. I’ve gotten you out of bed?” You get the picture.
In defence of Gaylord Larsen, he can write agreeably, and the pages turn quickly. He deserves genuine praise for coming up with a concept of real interest and exciting potential. What is more, his “least likely person” plot isn’t at all bad. These positive points do need to be made, not least because I don't care much for reviews that are wholly negative. It's not right to overlook redeeming features. But I'm afraid that, overall, Dorothy and Agatha has to rank as, to put it kindly, a missed opportunity.