A few days ago, my friend tim mentioned Gaudy Night, and I realized that I wanted nothing in the world more than to read Gaudy Night. I know I refused to read it or even think about it earlier this year when I was reading Strong Poison, but I have rarely enjoyed a reread as much as I did this one. Reading Gaudy Night this time was like eating cilantro – you know what it’s going to be like, and you are thinking, man, this is going to be great, but no matter how high your expectations are, you find them exactly justified. (Did you know there’s a gene for liking cilantro? If you don’t have the gene, cilantro apparently just tastes like soap.) I read slowly on purpose to make it last, and every page was like a delicious layer cake made out of rainbows and kittens, with feminism icing and Oxford sprinkles.
Gaudy Night, easily the best of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries, features Harriet Vane trying to put her past behind her. She receives several unpleasant anonymous notes while attending a reunion at her old Oxford college (the fictional Shrewsbury, modeled on Sayers’s college Somerville), and some time later gets word from her college that its fellows and students are the targets of an unrelenting campaign of anonymous nastiness. Down Harriet goes to investigate, and after a while Peter Wimsey joins her. There are many hijinks.
Oh this book is so much more than a mystery novel. Oh how I love it. It explores attitudes towards women and scholarship in its time (Agatha Christie Time), and the nature of integrity in writing and in one’s personal life. Harriet and Peter have to confront their situation properly – the way that he has approached their relationship, as pursuer of a desired object, and the way that she has approached it, grudgingly enjoying his company while resenting him fiercely as a tie to her quite miserable past.
I do not like it in serials (book series, as well as TV shows) when something terrible happens and then everyone just forgets about it. Like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoilers for the pilot of Buffy), which is normally good about keeping its characters emotionally honest, we lose Jesse, and then nobody ever talks about him again, even though he was supposedly Xander and Willow’s BFF. Gaudy Night gives Harriet a chance to face her past (the nasty murdering parts and the inescapable gratitude parts) on her own terms, resolving quite nicely, but not at all glibly, the internal and with-Peter conflicts begun in Strong Poison.
Spoilers in this paragraph, but only for one scene: Every time I read Gaudy Night, I hope that Harriet will put her Chinese chessmen away and not let them get smashed. They sound so beautiful, and it was the first proper present he ever gave her. I can hardly read that scene, it makes me so sad. It is like watching the casino scene in Empire Records – except of course money can be replaced, and the chessmen were singular.
In the aforementioned chat with tim when Gaudy Night came up, I mentioned I had Murder on the Orient Express out from the library, and all the clues are highlighted in orange. And tim said that she doesn’t really try to figure out mysteries as she’s going along, which I don’t either. I am fine with this way of reading mysteries – if I enjoy them, it’s not because of the clues and the cleverness of the mystery. I like finding out about all the characters and their dirty little secrets and what they kept hidden from the detectives for what reasons. This is the fun of mysteries to me. The reveal of the murderer is fine, but not particularly more interesting than the reveal that the society girl had an abortion or the lawyer is sleeping with his secretary, or whatever.
Which, incidentally, makes it perfectly agreeable to me to reread mysteries without having to forget who the guilty party is.
How do you read mysteries? Do you try to solve the mystery before Poirot does, or do you just toodle along admiring the scenery like me? Do you find you can reread mysteries, or are you done with them once you’ve read them once? If you do spot clues, do you have to make the effort, as you are reading, to work out how each piece fits in the puzzle, or do the events of the book just churn round in your subconscious and eventually pop out an answer? (And if the latter, why aren’t the subconscious minds of tim and me doing it? At least one of us is very, very clever (snever) (hi, tim!), so I cannot put it down to lack of intelligence.)