Early in 1931, twenty-eight year-old Dorothy Bowers wrote an old chum from Oxford that she still hoped “to make creative literary work my career” but admitted that “it’s a slow, uphill” battle. A year later she told the same correspondent that her mail was filled with “a fairly regular spate of rejection slips from various editors.” Her chatty letters record a litany of disappointments since graduating from Oxford where “the one real, perfect part of my life was lived.” Five years down from university, she still had not managed to find a full-time teaching position. Returning to her home town of Monmouth, just over the Welsh border, she found temporary work tutoring the academically lazy son of the geography master at the boys’ school and substituting for the history mistress at the local girls’ secondary school whenever that instructor’s delicate constitution succumbed—as it did quite often, it seems—to gastritis, flu, or a kindred ailment. “The writing is apt to suffer from divided attention,”Dorothy wrote. “The mental processes involved in coaching a backward boy and creating a short story don’t mingle harmoniously! Publication is so slow as to be thoroughly disheartening when I think about it.” It is, to be sure, the usual complaint of the fledgling writer, but unlike those of most of her ilk, Dorothy’s story was to have a happy ending. We found these letters tucked away in her Oxford friend’s first edition of Dorothy’s first novel, Postscript to Poison, which was published in 1938 to enthusiastic reviews.
Indeed, there were many contemporary critics who said she was the logical successor to Dorothy L. Sayers, who a year earlier had published her final Lord Peter mystery, Busman’s Honeymoon, as the mistress of the well-crafted literary thriller. Certainly all five of her books measure up to the highest standards of the genre. Her oft-acknowledged masterpiece, Fear and Miss Betony, was heralded by the Times of London as the best mystery of 1941 and was selected by one of America’s most discerning mystery critics of the time, James Sandoe, for inclusion in his Reader’s Guide to Crime, a list of mystery high spots he recommended as required acquisitions for any library wishing to have a representative collection of detective fiction.
The Times was, from the start, one of her biggest champions, citing her considerable ability to combine a puzzling plot with adept characterization in Postscript to Poison. “Miss Dorothy Bowers should make a name in detective fiction.” And so she did. Making up for a slow start, she published three more Inspector Dan Pardoe novels over the next three years, Shadows Before (1939), Deed Without a Name (1940), and Fear and Miss Betony (1941), of which the Times said: “Every page bears witness to a brain of uncommon powers.” It took a world war to slow her output. Sometime after the outbreak of hostilities, she moved to London and was engaged in the European News Service of the BBC. Six years would pass before her fifth—and final—book appeared in 1947, The Bells at Old Bailey (called The Bells of Old Bailey in the U.S.). Pardoe is absent, his place taken by another Scotland Yarder. During this period, she contracted tuberculosis, and eventually succumbed to the disease in the late summer of 1948. She died knowing that she had been inducted into the prestigious Detection Club founded by Sayers (and others), the only writer selected for membership in 1948.
Chief among the several tenets of the Detection Club was that its members play fair with their readers, a rule with which Bowers obviously had no problem. Her books are all intricately plotted affairs, with the clues freely, if subtly, sprinkled throughout the narrative, sometimes tucked away in snatches of seemingly meaningless dialog or, more often than not, blatantly trumpeted in full view of the reader as if to say, “Here it is. Make the most of it.” When Inspector Pardoe indicates he knows who the murderer is, the reader knows virtually everything he does. What’s more, a wise reader would do well to pay careful attention to at least one of her titles.
Plots and clues are fine as far as they go. What lifts Bowers above such contemporary fair play plodders as John Rhode or Henry Wade is her ability to convey the essence of a character in a handful of perceptive phrases, as when she introduces the murdered woman’s companion in Postscript to Poison: “She was a pale woman of medium height and indefinite age, rather plump, with brown hair and eyes. Her face bore a more or less constant expression of artificial brightness.” What puts Bowers up with (and perhaps above) many of the true greats of the genre is the fact that each and every character, no matter how insignificant, is depicted with equal care. She also displays a nice eye for place, so much so that detective puzzle absolutists like Jacques Barzun (still a Bowers admirer) carp that her descriptions occasionally distract readers from the plot. Most readers will gladly embrace those distractions.
These aspects of her writing, as well as her training, suggest that Bowers embarked on her writing career with an eye toward becoming a mainstream writer, though she greatly enjoyed what she termed “light” reading. Certainly she read broadly. She much appreciated Victorian reminiscences (her parents had been born during this era), as well as stage memoirs and popular biographies of historic figures such as the Duke of Wellington. Some of her favorite novels were Fathers by “Elizabeth,” Summer Holiday and The Delicate Situation by Naomi Royde-Smith and Stella Benson’s Tobit Transplanted. She may not have started out writing crime fiction but she freely admitted a fondness for the genre. “Detective fiction still attracts me intermittently,” she wrote in 1932, “but I’m getting with regard to it more and more discriminative and only enjoy the best!” In that category she placed English writers Dorothy L. Sayers, J.J. Connington, Alice Campbell, and A.E.W. Mason and the American S.S. Van Dine, whose books copied the English style.
There was little in her background to suggest that she would turn into a novelist, a career choice more often adopted by English women during that period who were free from any obligation to actually earn their own way. She was born on June 11, 1902, in Leonminster, Herefordshire, the second daughter of Albert Edwards Bowers, a confectioner who moved his family to Monmouth in 1903. He operated his own bakery on Agincourt Square in that city until he retired in 1936. Dorothy’s early education was at the Monmouth School for Girls. She went up to Oxford on October 13, 1923, when she was twenty-one, a somewhat advanced age for a first-year student, though one should also remember that Oxford only started awarding degrees to women in 1920. She took a third honors (not a terribly good degree) in Modern History in 1926 from The Society of Oxford Home Students (now St. Anne’s College) and returned to Monmouth to pursue a career as a history mistress. Her friends from those glorious days in Oxford, including her sister Evelyn May Bowers—her beloved May—dispersed themselves to teaching posts in virtually every corner of England. She missed them and Oxford dearly.
The closest Dorothy came to finding a full-time post was when she took a temporary job in the autumn of 1929 teaching history, English and elocution (her emphasis) at a school in Malvern “kept by the Plymouth Brethren, who were certainly interesting enough from the standpoint of a human nature study.” She was shocked at the total lack of discipline at the school and was grateful that she did not live on the school grounds. Instead, she lived with her old headmistress from her student days at Monmouth School for Girls, who had recently retired to a seventeenth-century cottage on the Malvern Link Commons. Although she had a “jolly time” at home, she had no regrets when her contract at the school ran out.
In addition to her writing and substitute teaching duties, Dorothy compiled crossword puzzles for John O’London Weekly from 1936 to 1943 and for Country Life from 1940 to 1946. Like her sister and many of her Oxford friends, she never married. If there was ever a man in her life it was an aspect of her existence that she chose not to share with her friends. She died at Tupsley, Hereford, on Sunday, Aug. 29, 1948, at the age of 46, with her sister May at her bedside, and was buried near her mother.
Within a few years of her death, all of her books were out of print. Had she lived a normal life span it seems likely that she would have produced a sizable body of work, firmly establishing herself as one of the masters of the genre. But the five books we do have make for no mean achievement. As a reviewer for The London Times wrote in 1940, “She ranks with the best.”
Tom & Enid Schantz