Gaudy Night (1936)

by Dorothy L. Sayers

With Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers turned a detective story into a serious novel. A feminist ahead of her time, Sayers anticipated issues couples would confront in our own day: meaningful work for each partner and love based on equality, honesty, and friendship.

In nine previous novels starring the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers developed her detective from a foppish man about town into a sensitive, serious man capable of great understanding and love for a woman. The particular woman, Harriet Vane, is not one whose qualities had been considered appropriate for a heroine.  She is plain, practical, honest, self-supporting (a mystery writer), independent, and intelligent. She also has had a lover, whom she was accused of murdering. In the novel in which they meet, Strong Poison, Peter proves Harriet's innocence and saves her life. The gratitude she owes him is a debt that gets in the way of returning his love. Until Gaudy Night.

Sayers had to find a plot that would force Harriet to confront her feelings about Peter and marriage. Gaudy Night intertwines the Wimsey-Vane relationship with a mystery; the resolution of one is the resolution of the other. Returning to her alma mater, Oxford's Shrewsbury College, for a "gaudy" (much like American homecomings), Harriet observes that marriage has eroded the good minds of most of her classmates; in contrast, the unmarried dons (professors) are completely devoted to the life of the mind. But then a poison pen disrupts the college, leaving notes that suggest one of the dons may be acting out of sexual repression. The case is too close to Harriet's heart- versus-mind dilemma for her to resolve it, so she calls in Peter, who risks losing his suit with Harriet by exposing the villain.

If your first taste of Sayers is Gaudy Night, you may be disappointed in the early Wimsey books because the hero is not as deep. However, Sayers created engaging characters and tight plots, and there are many amusing scenes between Peter and his valet Bunter, his titled family, and his policeman friend Charles Parker. Especially recommended are The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise.


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