Top mysteries challenge review: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Year of publication: 1936
Series and no.: Lord Peter Wimsey, no. 11.
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Sabotage, poison pen letters, attempted murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, aided by a semi-professional
Setting & time: Oxford, England; 1930s

While visiting her old college in Oxford, Harriet Vane finds an anonymous poison-pen message seemingly directed at herself. She thinks no more of it until she is invited back and taken into the confidence of the Dean and asked, due to being a mystery writer and therefore a sort of expert on criminal behaviour, to help discreetly find out who has been sending these nasty little messages to students and various members of the teaching staff and committing acts of nasty but apparently senseless sabotage around campus. Harriet feels out of her depth, but agrees to the task and, over the period of almost 2 academic semesters, diligently gathers clues, but is unable to draw any significant conclusions from them. However, once she gives up trying to do it on her own and asks Peter Wimsey for help, he is able to use those clues to solve the mystery, and as they work together on the case, Harriet and Peter finally begin to understand each other better.

The synopsis above might indicate that this is a straightforward detective novel, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is also an ode to Oxford, a close look at academic society and academic thinking, an examination of the attitudes towards higher education for women prevalent at the time of writing, and a love story.

This is a long book, even by today’s standards, but unlike Have His Carcase which I read before it and which could have been pared down by about 100 pages or so with no damage to either plot or narrative, this one could not have been made better by making it shorter. It needs the slow pace and the discussions and thinking and the descriptions and small side-plots to build up tension, not only in the mystery part, but the romance part as well, and the examination of academia and women's education needs to be as extensive as it is because it has a direct bearing on the mystery.

The story breaks one of the primary rules of mystery writing, the one that states that nothing short of murder can be interesting in a mystery. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is almost a perfect specimen of the genre. It has the requisite build up of tension, the gathering of clues, odd and interesting personalities, a psychological factor, a thumping good climax and a very satisfying denouement.

It also has that interesting mingling of post-war sadness and pre-war innocence that colours some novels written in the years between the World Wars, especially after Hitler’s accession, and in fact I was slightly shocked when some of the characters referred to him positively and others jokingly, until I realised that of course I knew things that neither they nor Sayers had any inkling of.

I could probably write a thesis about this book, but since I think brevity is best when it comes to online reviewing, I will stop here.

Rating: An excellent, fine, nearly perfect mystery. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 93.

Place on the list(s): CWA: 4; MWA: 18.

Awards and nominations: None I know of.


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