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Montague Egg, Dorothy Sayers' other detective

Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the greatest detectives of fiction. But Dorothy Sayers also wrote another, much less well-known detective, Montague Egg.

Montague Egg, also known as Monty, only appears in a limited number of short stories. (There are also some Lord Peter Wimsey short stories, of varying quality, which fans of the novels should read.) The Egg stories tend to be of the "puzzle plot" type.

Despite the small scale, Monty emerges as a memorable character. What is especially interesting, though, is that he is in many ways the anti-Wimsey. Lord Peter Wimsey is rich, aristocratic, and independent, with time, status, and resources to go investigating murders as he pleases. Monty is a commercial traveller, selling fine wines, and comes upon murders and other crimes by chance. He solves problems, and moves on.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote that Lord Peter's privileged life was in origin a diversion from her own real circumstances: if she couldn't pay her bus fare, then at least she could write Wimsey with a top-of-the-range Daimler. Lord Peter excels at all sorts of things, especially high-status activities: cricket and wine-tasting, but also the English art of bell-ringing (The Nine Tailors, a classic that every practitioner of the art reads). He collects incunabula, very early printed books. (OED states that "incunabula" is usually taken as being printed before 1500. Most people know the word, if at all, because of Lord Peter.)

Montague Egg, as a travelling salesman, belongs to a much lower social class. He is an expert on wine, because it's his job, but otherwise he makes no claim to expertise -- although he knows quite a lot in an unsystematic way, as he is always keen to learn from other salesmen or the people he meets. Whether or not one could call Wimsey a traditionalist, he is certainly someone from a traditional world (perhaps the incunabula have symbolic significance, though they may just represent esoteric and eccentric taste); but Monty believes in the up-to-date. On one occasion when he encounters a new sort of prefabricated petrol station that can be put up quickly he expresses his warm admiration of the modern, standardized approach which reduces cost and increases efficiency. In many (not all) ways Monty is closer to Sayers' real life in the advertising industry. Montague Egg is always referring to his Salesman's Handbook, with its rhyming maxims. (He composes new ones himself to help remember useful information.)

Monty as the anti-Wimsey is worth noting because Sayers is sometimes criticized for promoting elitism and snobbery. Undoubtedly there is elitism in Lord Peter; the question is how far it is serious. Monty is a figure on the other side of the social scale who is treated with respect. (There are some comic touches, but that's also true of Wimsey.) Commercial travellers belonged to the lower-middle class, which in England was traditionally looked down on, but Monty is an admirable figure: hard-working, uncomplaining, kind to everyone, and believing in a sense of public service in his work. Sayers' portrayal of commercial travellers as having a sense of identity and fraternity, developed through staying at the same commercial hotels, appears to be based on reality.

The two do have things in common, of course: both have qualities that Dorothy Sayers admired. Both served in the trenches during the First World War -- pretty common experience at the time-- though this is not explored in Monty's case. (In the Lord Peter Wimsey stories the effects of the war appear in several ways; Lord Peter himself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks.)

I have sometimes wished that Dorothy Sayers had written a Montague Egg novel, but it's a bit hard to see how it would have worked. Monty simply doesn't have the time to go sleuthing around like Lord Peter, and it doesn't seem in character for him to make an investigation. A novel would also have raised the problem of how to develop the character more, and provide him with more context. That isn't to say Dorothy Sayers couldn't have done it: perhaps something a little like Murder Must Advertise, set in the trade. But it might have detracted from the perfection of what we have.

I also sometimes imagine Monty turning up as a character in a Wimsey story, or vice versa...


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