Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

501 pages
Published 1935 by Gollancz
Reprinted by Harper Collins Publishers in 1995
New York, NY

It's no secret, I love a good mystery read. And yet somehow I had managed to get nearly three decades into my life with books without once picking up a novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. That is, until this year when several of the ladies in my book club strongly encouraged our group to not only read Gaudy Night, but to add it to the very limited list of books we read and discuss together. I knew then and there I had to read something by Dorothy L. Sayers. A book coming with such strong recommendation from readers I respect and admire, I knew must be indeed a worthwhile read.

For those that don't know much about Sayers' mystery novels, Gaudy Night is the tenth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series. It varies slightly from the earlier books in the series in that the plot revolves around mystery author Harriet Vane, a friend of Lord Peter's, with Lord Peter taking a supporting role to the story. Having absolutely no background in either the character's lives or the previous cases solved within the series I thought I might be in for a bit of confusion, but I was not. Although references to earlier cases, particularly Strong Poison are made, these are subtle and do not distract from the present story. In a way, Gaudy Night could probably be considered one of the few stand-alone reads within a series if one chose to read it that way.

The plot:
Famed mystery writer Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater (an all female college) for reunion of sorts, which will include the annual "Gaudy" celebrations. Harriet initially has second thoughts about making the trip, but after the weekend turns out well she quickly dismisses such thoughts... Until she  discovers a poison-pen type note in the pocket of her gown that she wore during her stay. This she soon learns is not the only one of its kind. The dons of the college contact Harriet asking for her assistance in solving a real mystery -- who is the lunatic behind a string of malicious pranks, poison pen letters and nasty graffiti that has been spread around the college following the Gaudy Night. The only problem is the dons want to keep the matter out of the press and yet there is a sense of urgency that the mystery must be solved before someone is seriously injured... Hoping to avoid scandal and further problems Harriet begins to investigate, but quickly turns to her friend Lord Peter Wimsey for help in clearing the names of some of her beloved teachers.

My Thoughts:
I truly enjoyed Gaudy Night. It was a good mystery read. Although, I confess, I did solve the "whodunnit" about 125 pages before the end, which I count an accomplishment as the mystery was a definite puzzler. I found the story well plotted, well written, and overall fascinating on so many levels.

On the surface you have a mystery. Below that there are discussions and thought provoking conversations that revolve around issues of the day like social class, feminism, a woman's education, and the advantages of marriage and single-hood, career and family. Of course to further enrich this novel there is also a love story and plenty of charm and wit to keep the reader laughing and turning the pages.

Yes, this is a Harriet Vane story, but it is contained within the Lord Peter Wimsey series and Lord Peter's presence is certainly felt within the book even when he is physically absent from the scene. It didn't take long before I knew I had to read the rest of the series. I just loved Lord Peter and Harriet Vane.

Gaudy Night is a quotable, meaty story, but also a thrilling and completely satisfying mystery. Definitely a must-read for mystery fans or those looking for a good English read from the early part of the 20th century, but don't just take my word for it, go get a copy and discover for yourself!

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Caniad said...

One of the best.

On an unrelated note, I almost posted something to you yesterday. I found an article about a "newly discovered" Agatha Christie short story, with the full text in the article -- but then I looked a little closer, and apparently it wasn't new. In any case, here's the link: said...

Love that book, and all the Vane/Whimsy novels!

Buried In Print said...

I'm at Strong Poison in the series (having started with Peter, not Harriet), and I'm especially keen to read on, knowing that she's about to come into the scene. (I've been reading the short stories in order as well...yes, that obsessive!)