Saturday, 17 November 2012

Review: Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night

Dorothy L. Sayers

Hodder and Stoughton, 2003 (1935)

When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the "Gaudy," the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters -- including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.

I am reasonably rubbish at putting books down once I've started them - some strange compulsion towards completion, I guess - but this one quickly fell foul of being written by a highly-recommended author and yet failing to deliver in the first few chapters. Disappointment almost turned it into a DNF, but I decided to give it one more chance.

I'm glad I did, because Gaudy Night has a lot of elements that I enjoy: crime fiction, for a start, and set in the 1930s. Setting-wise, it also benefits from taking place at an Oxford college (fictional, but surrounded by those that exist in real life). Poison-pen crime set in academia is a bit niche, but it's a niche I wish was bigger.

So - why the almost-DNF? Gaudy Night opens with an introduction to Harriet Vane, one-time student of Shrewsbury College and now crime writer (there were, I feel, shades of Ariadne Oliver here). In the past, Harriet was saved from the death penalty after being accused of killing a man, her saviour being none other than Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet is off to a school reunion weekend, which she is dreading. What follows is a wonderfully bitchy, minutely observed rendering of the reunion, right up to the point that Harriet discovers an anonymous note in the sleeve of her gown.

The writing and the detail were both brilliant, and yet I was frustrated with the lengthy musings and conversations, given the fact that I was expecting a crime novel. Whilst the reunion, with all its social etiquette and host of characters, was interesting, a lot of these characters never appear again. And even when Harriet does discover the anonymous letter, she doesn't do anything about it and simply throws it away. Instead, she goes home to London, where the book seemed to stall momentarily as it waited for the phonecall from Shrewsbury to report (gasp) a spate of poison pen letters - and would Harriet, with her experience of criminal procedure and her existing relationship to the college, be prepared to advise?

From here, the book began to improve. Harriet decamps to Shrewsbury, and the investigation begins. There are a lot of characters, mostly the female dons (Shrewsbury is a women's college), who were sometimes difficult to keep track of, plus a smattering of domestic staff, students, and men from a nearby college. The perpetrator begins by sending cruel notes, but this escalates into sabotage, vandalism and physical attack, as the staff begin to suspect each other, and tensions run high.

Harriet calls in Lord Peter to help, at which point the book descends into a sometimes-tedious subplot of Peter being in love with Harriet, and Harriet refusing his (numerous) proposals of marriage. There is a lot of musing on marriage in general in Gaudy Night, and a separation of the women along the lines of those who are married (and therefore removed from scholarly life and tied to a husband and children) and those who are not (thus, able to pursue their independence and scholarly interests). The book also discusses women's education and the continued opposition to its credibility during this period of time, and some of the men at Oxford are characterised as being opposed to women being awarded degrees. Part of the reason that Harriet, rather than the police, is called in relates to the desire not to besmirch the fragile public image of women's education with stories of the poison pen letters.

The action increases towards the end of the book, as you might expect, and various red herrings and possible suspects are thrown up (my guess ended up being quite wide of the mark!). This went some way to redeeming the novel after the slow start and the odd patches in the middle that didn't seem to move the story along particularly. (One lengthy chapter details Peter's visit to the campus, in which he engages various members of staff in dinner conversation in order to subtly evaluate their characters, yet his motives are obscured and the conversations as a result are pretty tedious.) I'm very glad I continued with Gaudy Night - the feminist musings and the academic backdrop were interesting, and once it got going the criminal element was solid. Yet I felt it could have been half the length and just as effective.

(In addition, the edition I read was absolutely riddled with spelling errors and punctuation that was either missing, wrong, or doubled. There were numerous instances of missing speechmarks, double commas, and a couple of times when "?" and "!" were transposed, turning exclamations into questions and vice versa. While this didn't affect the story, it was incredibly frustrating to read!)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.


  1. I adore crime fiction in a historical setting, especially the first half of the 20th century. It's too bad it started out slowly because, considering the setting, the writing and the attention to detail, this book could have been pure perfection.
    Great review!

  2. Well it's great that your perseverance paid off! I find it hard to DNF a book, even when it's not great, but you just never know if it will improve.

    I like the sound of the mystery but I think the slow start and boring convos would put me off, too! Great review :)


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