Gaudy Night

Dorothy L. Sayers

Hodder & Stoughton 2003 [1935]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Detective novelist Harriet Vane revisits her old Oxford college for the Gaudy Night celebrations, but while there she receives a poison pen letter. When others in the college start receiving similar letters, and the college is afflicted by nocturnal vandalism, she returns to investigate under cover of some academic research. The list of suspects can be pretty much restricted to the Senior Common Room, to the college dons...

As a mystery Gaudy Night is slow: it's quite eventful, but there's little suspense and no actual murder. Both the detection and the denouement hinge on the psychology of the suspects, with the more traditional physical clues ultimately irrelevant or misleading. This is quite nicely done, as befits a master of the genre, with a steady progression of leads to keep the reader involved and guessing.

A fair bit of space is taken up by debates over the place of women in academia and over the conflicts between an academic vocation and other career options, or between career and family. One effect of this preoccupation is that the college academics tend a little towards being illustrative types rather than real people. These debates are not just tacked on, however, but turn out to be deeply entwined both with the mystery plot and with the other strand of Gaudy Night, which is a romance.

Harriet eventually calls in Lord Peter Wimsey to help resolve the mystery and in the last part of the novel the intellectual and emotional pas de deux between them, with a bit part for Wimsey's nephew, works its way to the long-expected conclusion. Wimsey himself seems a little unreal — he appears to have been Sayers' creation of her ideal partner — but Harriet's own struggle, balancing fears for her independence and autonomy with other hopes and dreams, is more convincingly depicted.

Gaudy Night is not compelling purely as a mystery, would surely disappoint anyone who tried to read it just as a romance, and canvasses some ideas which are no longer so salient. But its different strands are cleverly interwoven and the result transcends genre; it is a much more sophisticated work than Sayers' straight detective novels. The Oxford setting and the insider's depiction of an (invented) Oxford women's college in the 1930s are an additional attraction.

March 2012

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%T Gaudy Night
%A Sayers, Dorothy L.
%I Hodder & Stoughton
%D 2003 [1935]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0450021548
%P 564pp