As I am writing this post on an evening when the entertainment industry gathers for a glittering showcase of Oscar presentations at the Academy Awards, "Gaudy Night" might seem like a good description of those annual festivities. But the "Gaudy Night" to which I am referring is something that endures far longer than the glitter of an awards show. It is the title of a delightful mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers that studies the perils endured by a pioneering college for women at ancient Oxford University. The book is "Gaudy Night," published in 1936, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
A "Gaudy Night" in the British academic sense is a kind of formal reunion of "old grads," who return to their college for a sort of academic festival. They renew old acquaintances with their professors and with each other. That is how Harriet Vane, a graduate of the fictional Shrewsbury College, the first college entirely for women at Oxford, is drawn into the mysterious and dangerous goings-on at her old school.
The newly republished edition of "Gaudy Night" from the Bourbon Street Books imprint of HarperCollins says, on the front cover, "A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery with Harriet Vane." This is backwards; it is really a Harriet Vane mystery with occasional appearances by Lord Peter. This is fine; Harriet is more than capable of handling things quite nicely, even if Wimsey does come in towards the end to help unravel some of the mystery. For readers who may be new to Sayers, and to Wimsey and Vane, Lord Peter first met Harriet when she was on trial for murder a couple of books earlier in the series. His investigations saved her life. He has been wooing her ever since, to her general consternation - she worries whether she is mistaking a natural gratitude for love. There will be some resolution in the course of "Gaudy Night."
The main plot has Harriet pressed into service to help investigate a series of poison pen letters aimed at students and officials at Shrewsbury College. The letters are quickly augmented by a series of increasingly dangerous practical jokes. It appears that somebody is trying to destroy the reputation of the school and of its scholars. Harriet and Lord Peter must determine what is happening - and try to head off the growing possibility of tragedy.
As with most of Sayers' other books, "Gaudy Night" is written with humor and wit and a great deal of insight into the personalities and conflicts of the central characters. The tension between Lord Peter and Harriet in their relationship is also at the heart of the novel. At one point, for example, Harriet, having just read a rather surprising letter from Lord Peter - one that clearly accepts her as his equal in every way - muses:]
"That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light, but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and stick to it, he would have to be not a man but a miracle."
Mystery readers frequently argue over the merits of "Gaudy Night." Some are put off by its length, some object to its frequent literary quotes and allusions and some complain that not enough "happens" to suit their taste. All may be fair complaints, but I don't join in them. Sayers has a wonderful writing style that keeps the story moving while providing insightful and witty and, yes, thought-provoking comments that I find extremely entertaining. It's also a well-plotted and gripping mystery with a fair number of surprising twists that lead to a thoroughly logical conclusion. This should not be your only Sayers novel - almost certainly not your first. But it should definitely be on your "To Be Read" list as an example of the kind of elegant writing that made the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in England so memorable.
"Gaudy Night" is also another of my entries in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the category "Murder is Academic: a mystery involving a scholar, teacher, librarian, etc. OR set at a school, university, library, etc." "Gaudy Night" is both.