BOOK REVIEW: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

The great Dorothy L. Sayers is considered by many to be the premier detective novelist of the Golden Age, and her dashing sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, one of mystery fiction’s most enduring and endearing protagonists. Acclaimed author Ruth Rendell has expressed her admiration for Sayers’s work, praising her “great fertility of invention, ingenuity, and wonderful eye for detail.” The third Dorothy L. Sayers classic to feature mystery writer Harriet Vane, Gaudy Night is now back in print with an introduction by Elizabeth George, herself a crime fiction master. Gaudy Night takes Harriet and her paramour, Lord Peter, to Oxford University, Harriet’s alma mater, for a reunion, only to find themselves the targets of a nightmare of harassment and mysterious, murderous threats.

My Thoughts:

The tenth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series by Dorothy L. Sayers has been called ‘a literary masterpiece’, perhaps because it is the longest, the slowest and the mostintrospective. It cannot rightly be called a murder mystery, as there is no murder. It is set in
an all-woman’s college in Oxford, where a malicious person is sending anonymous poison letters and destroying property. Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s love interest, agrees to help the college because it is where she did her degree – the story that follows is as much about the
psychological makeup of a wide variety of characters as it is about the solving of the mystery.

Most fans of Dorothy L. Sayers agree that the books which include Harriet Vane are among her best. This may be because Harriet humanises Lord Peter, making him vulnerable and fallible. In some of the books, he is all glitter and glam – a wealthy aristocratic bachelor driving fast cars, buying rare first editions, drinking the very best wine, a virtuoso pianist, a fine athlete who can do a perfect swan dive and a backflip (no less). Harriet Vane is much more real. She is a detective novelist who struggles with her craft, a scandalous woman who was accused of poisoning her lover, an independent soul who wants to live life by her own terms. She first appeared in Book 5: Strong Poison where Lord Peter falls in love with her at first sight when he sees her standing in the dock accused of murder. She appears again in Book 7: Have His Carcase where she discovers a young man with his throat cut on a deserted beach and calls on Peter to help her find the culprit.

You must read those books before tackling Gaudy Night, the third book in which she appears, as the slowly unfurling romance between Harriet and Peter is the source of much of the pleasure of the book. The character of Harriet Vane also seems to give insight into the psyche of Dorothy Sayers herself – she was one of the first generation of women to receive an Oxford education, graduating BA with first-class honours in 1915 and as an MA in 1920, and she too had troublesome relationships in which she struggled to balance the expectations of society with her own desire to write.

This book is also interesting in the history of Golden Age crime, as it was one of the first to focus on the human psychology of the mystery, rather than just presenting a clever intellectual puzzle to unravel.

You might also like to read my review of Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers:


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Kate Forsyth
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