In her introduction to the The Floating Admiral, which Dorothy L. Sayers and other members of the Detection Club wrote collaboratively, Sayers set out the rules that the mystery writers were bound to follow:
“Put briefly, it amounts to this: that the author pledges himself to play the game with the public . . . His detectives must detect by their wits, without the help of accident or coincidence; he must not invent impossible death-rays and poisons to produce solutions which no living person could expect; he must write as good English as he can.”
Sayers abided by these rules in her own detective fiction as well. Her short story “Suspicion,” collected in the last volume of mystery writing the author ever published, shows her own dedication to playing the game and playing it fairly.
In ”Suspicion,” the main character, Mr. Mummery, grows to fear that the new cook, Mrs. Sutton, is really Mrs. Andrews, a murderess on the run now trying to poison him and his wife, Ethel. After a bit of bumbling, Mr. Mummery brings a cocoa sample to a chemist and soon finds out that the drink is laced with a heavy dose of arsenic. At the very moment Mr. Mummery is about to share the bad news with his wife, Mrs. Sutton announces that the real Mrs. Andrews has been caught. Mr. Mummery’s immediate relief is followed up by a more vexing question; “But there had been the cocoa. . . . Who, then—?”
The story, while exceedingly simple and lacking in-depth detection, shows Sayers at her finest. Mr. Mummery indeed uses his wits, even if he seems rather witless from time to time. His discovery of the solution is believable, especially as he is forced to the realization of his wife’s deceit only by default. Perhaps most interestingly, Sayers’ ending is a surprise but never a trick: every clue pointing to Ethel as the poisoner is made clearly available in the text. The story’s point of view, however, is so firmly grounded in Mr. Mummery that most readers will likely follow him along in his pursuit of an answer, despite his bumbling, timidity, and general ineffectiveness.
Sayers’ writing is carefully crafted to build the story to its crescendo while leading the reader to the same conclusion as Mr. Mummery. The latter is a remarkable achievement, for any mystery reader will surely question how Mrs. Sutton can be the murderess given that all the clues so definitely point to her. Again, Sayers’ success is grounded in her convincing narration, which is so clearly defined by Mr. Mummery that the reader can hardly entertain an idea that he is not also entertaining. The other major reason for the success of the story is Sayers’ layering of detail upon detail in a seemingly innocent fashion. Such a technique makes the clues integral parts of the story; once the reader has come to believe that they point to Mrs. Sutton’s guilt, the reader is almost bound to stick with that presumption, for diverting from it would be like tearing the very fabric of the story apart.
The story starts out on the train. Mr. Mummery is experiencing stomach pains, which he ascribes to his breakfast not agreeing with him. The narrator then introduces Mr. Mummery’s cook, but the careful choice of words—”coffee made as only Mrs. Sutton knew how to make it”—implies that Mrs. Sutton had been with the Mummerys for some time. As the reader gradually learns, however, Mrs. Sutton has only been in their employ for one month— exactly the same amount of time Mrs. Andrews has been on the loose. Her arrival also coincides exactly with the onset of Mr. Mummery’s stomach problems. Still later, the reader discovers that Mrs. Sutton came seeking employment without references, a situation that had initially made Mr. Mummery “uneasy.” Yet these significant details are revealed slowly, so their effect is one of a gradual build-up. The reader is almost compelled to accept these clues as proof of Mrs. Sutton’s guilt, much as Mr. Mummery does. Sayers’ prose also makes Mr. Mummery’s suspicions seem utterly natural. In the first scene, Mr. Mummery reads the newspaper, which is how the reader is introduced to the Andrews case: “The police were still looking for the woman who was supposed to have poisoned a family in Lincoln.” This tidbit is buried amidst a series of articles on topics including a factory fire and government typewriters. Again, Sayers employs the technique of building detail upon detail to fix the larger picture. Only in a later conversation does the reader learn that, in her last escapade, Mrs. Andrews had been employed as a cook for a husband and wife, and that now police think she may seek another position as a cook. The fate of these last victims of Mrs. Andrews—the husband dies and the wife becomes seriously ill—takes on chilling significance after the story has reached its surprising conclusion.
Savers’ introduction of Mrs. Sutton and Ethel also inflame the reader’s suspicions. At first glimpse Mrs. Sutton “was sitting at the table with her back to him [Mr. Mummery], and started up almost guiltily as he approached” [italics mine]. When Mr. Mummery immediately asks about his wife, the reader finds out that she is ”feeling bad again.” She has “a bit of headache,” so Mrs. Sutton has given her a cup of tea. The juxtaposition of these ideas— Ethel’s illness and the tea made by Mrs. Sutton—in subsequent sentences implies a causality that does not actually exist.
After it is revealed that Mrs. Sutton is not Mrs. Andrews—and thus unlikely to be the person who placed arsenic in Mr. Mummery’s cocoa—the reader, along with Mr. Mummery, realizes that his poisoner must have been Ethel. A review of the clues shows that Ethel’s guilt has been suggested all along, for the clues as easily point to her as they did to Mrs. Sutton. For instance, when Mr. Mummery is sick in bed for several days, his food is “skillfully prepared by Mrs. Sutton and brought to his bedside by Ethel.” This detail emphasizes that Ethel has access to all the food that Mr. Mummery eats and could easily poison it. When Mr. Mummery comes home the evening in which a potentially fatal dose of arsenic has been placed in his cocoa, the beverage was made by Mrs. Sutton, but at the instigation of Ethel, who makes a point of asking Mr. Mummery if he drank the cocoa: “Did Mrs. Sutton leave something hot for you? She said she would.” Clearly, Ethel wants to know if Mr. Mummery ingested the arsenic.
The clues also suggest Ethel’s affair with young Welbeck. The first reference to him comes, innocently enough, from Mr. Mummery’s partner, who asks after Ethel’s health.
“’Can’t do without her in the drama society, you know,’ Mr. Brookes says .. . ‘I shan’t forget her acting last year in Romance. She and young Welbeck positively brought the house down, didn’t they? The Welbecks were asking after her only yesterday.’”
In re-evaluating this passage, the reader can see the connection between Ethel and Welbeck in a play so aptly titled. But it is also apparent how easily overlooked such a connection might be. The visit they pay to the Mummerys’ home shows that Ethel and Welbeck use the acquaintance between the families to disguise their relationship. Further, the Welbecks’ visit is revealing: Ethel becomes “quite white and tremulous” as Mrs. Welbeck talks on about the poisoning case, which Mr. Mummery ascribes to Ethel’s delicate nature. Mr. Mummery spies significant glances between Welbeck and Ethel and even catches them with clasped hands, but again, he has a plausible and natural explanation. Ethel grows animated when she finds out that the Welbecks had asked about her, and she speaks with subdued excitement when she reports that young Welbeck had visited to talk about the Drama Society—an excitement both Mummery and the reader could easily attribute to her interest in returning to the stage.
An underlying theme of the story is that things are not always what they appear—nor are people, which is yet another clue to Ethel’s treachery. After Mr. Mummery first discovers the loose stopper on the arsenic weed-killer he rams the top in forcefully. “After that he washed his hands carefully at the scullery tap, for he did not believe in taking risks.” This statement is blatantly untrue, for even when he suspects Mrs. Sutton of poisoning him and his wife, he takes no action whatsoever with the exception of coming into the kitchen while Mrs. Sutton and Ethel are preparing breakfast. He knows, however, that even this precaution is ineffectual, for “what was the use of supervising the breakfast, when he had to be out of the house every day between half-past nine and six?” Instead of reporting his suspicions to the police, Mr. Mummery relies on calling home frequently, which would do very little to save Ethel should she be poisoned. In essence, in taking no action, Mr. Mummery is risking his own life and that of his wife.
Mr. Brooke’s words, however, which close the opening section of the story, perhaps best demonstrate that a person can live with another person and yet never really know them. “She’s got a bad mouth,” pronounces Mr. Brookes while looking at a newspaper photograph of Mrs. Andrews.”He had a theory that character showed in the mouth. ‘I wouldn’t trust that woman an inch.'” For Mr. Mummery, however, he has all along been trusting the wrong woman without any suspicion whatsoever.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Dorothy L. Sayers, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ”Suspicion,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.