Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

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.)

24 thoughts on “Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

  1. Now all I want to do is read Gaudy Night, and my copy is across the country from me. It’s my fault – clearly I should carry Gaudy Night with me everywhere I go, just in case. Luckily I read it so obsessively as a twelve-year-old that I internalized whole passages and can recite them to myself from memory. It can get terribly distracting during exams, and other situations where I’ve carefully removed all tempting reading material only to find that my head is positively cluttered with it.

    I know what you mean about the chessmen. I think it’s partly because Harriet does have a sense of foreboding whenever anything particularly nasty is about to happen to her – she checks up on her mysterious call from Shrewsbury, she puts on the dog collar before her final run-in with the Poison Pen – so you never feel the need to yell, “No, Harriet, don’t go into that room!” But the destruction of the chessmen comes completely out of nowhere, and it’s heartbreaking.

    One thing I love about Gaudy Night is how the Harriet section is a psychological thriller and the Peter&Harriet section is a mystery novel, and the two halves fit together so perfectly. I love the bit where the Poison Pen drama seems to have reached its peak with Newland’s suicide attempt, and everyone’s on the edge of hysteria, and Harriet is wandering around Oxford with a headache and there’s a thunderstorm brewing, and there’s a sense that something has to happen because all this suspense is unbearable. And then the thunderstorm hits and the rain pours down, and Harriet’s headache goes away and the students dance in the quad in swimsuits, and the next day is bright and sunny and peaceful and Harriet and the Dean go off to church and on the way back they run into Lord Peter. And the book starts again as a mystery novel/ academic romance.

    Oh, and I never know who the murderer is, unless it’s something like Whose Body where the murderer is red-haired and there’s only one red-haired character in the book. Gaudy Night always convinces me that I would be a terrible detective. Because all the clues are there to be seen, and yet I couldn’t put them together to save my soul.

    • Aw, when you were twelve? I bet it got better and better as you got older. You’re so right too – the suspense builds and builds and doesn’t pay off, and somehow Sayers makes it work so well. I feel like reading it all over again! 😛

      (It consoles me that Harriet didn’t work out who it was. And she’s very clever.)

      • That consoles me, too, until I remember that Harriet can’t work it out only because she has a psychological block, and I have no such excuse.

  2. I really loved Gaudy Night, and caught a repeat of the BBC film version made years ago (so many I can’t remember exactly) which made me all nostalgic and I thought about trying to re-read Dorothy but that’s a consideration for another time.

    I don’t try to work out the murderer, but if something percolates to the top of my brain (I’m not sure that even makes sense) I let it sit there and I do feel smug if I’m right. But it’s almost always an educated guess rather than a proper working out of stuff.

    • I quite liked the BBC film of it – apparently the actors playing Harriet and Peter tried really hard to keep the writers more or less faithful to the book. Though films are rarely as good…

      I think that’s what I do too, occasionally come up with the answer without much effort. But I am inclined to think, on those occasions, that it’s just been an easy mystery to solve. Maybe next time I’ll try really hard to spot clues and see if I can work out the solution.

  3. Okay, so in three books I’m going to be allowed to get myself one as a reward for having knocked another twenty off the tbr pile, and I think this is going to be it. I knew I wanted it to be one of the mysteries that were recommended to me, and I was hesitating between this and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey…but you’ve pretty much settled it. Also, the non-fiction book I finished yesterday, Bluestockings by Jane Robinson, mentioned Sayers’ time at university a few times. This would be the perfect follow-up!

    • No! Wait! I’ve been too persuasive! Don’t read this one. Read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase first. Ana, seriously, do not read Gaudy Night before you read the previous two. I mean it. It’s better to wait, and read them in the right order, than to read Gaudy Night too soon. It’s such an amazing emotional payoff! From the preceding books.

      (I can’t believe I’m trying to dissuade you from reading Gaudy Night.)

  4. I am not sure at all how to answer any of your Qs on how I read mysteries! I think I like to try and figure it out but don’t get all that upset about it – maybe it’s a mood thing, ya know, the ol’ “IT DEPENDS” answer. This post also has my mind rambling off on a tangent: I was trying to think of which author I’ve read the most books by and I think I would have to say is Agatha Christie. but it’s been lots of years ago…

    • I think it’s Agatha Christie for me too. I’m not the hugest mystery reader as a rule, but I looooove Agatha Christie. I’m all about Poirot. Miss Marple is good but I love Poirot better.

  5. Now I want to read this too! I love a good mystery and I totally agree…finding out the little secrets of the characters involved is just as fun as the big reveal.

    Personally I read mysteries trying to guess the guilty party right from the beginning. I’m usually wrong but I can’t help myself! It’s all I can do to stop myself flicking forward to find out!

    • Definitely read it, but you want to read the first two before this one. Strong Poison and then Have His Carcase. They are both amazing and well worth the time.

      I sometimes do flick forward to find out. Usually not, with mysteries, but I sometimes give in and read the end.

  6. I love Gaudy Night! I think I’ve reread it 3 times.

    I laughed so hard at your cilantro analogy. I did know it was genetic, because I have friends who hate it. But I cook with it whenever I can!

    • Apparently Tolkien liked Sayers’ early mysteries but hated Gaudy Night. Silly Tolkien got it absolutely backwards. I think Gaudy Night is way the best of Sayers’ mysteries that I’ve read so far.

  7. Hmm interesting questions! I’m not a regular mystery reader. My favorite mysteries are written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I’ve nibbled at some of Agatha Christie’s. I don’t read them for the clue-solving aspect, rather, I read for the atmosphere, the process of the detectives, the characters. If I do figure out the whole mystery correctly, it doesn’t often take away from my enjoyment of the story. If I don’t believe the mystery is possible, that doesn’t take away either (i.e. Sherlock Holmes mysteries are pretty unrealistic but I do love them!). Of course, it’s a delightful bonus if there is a huge surprising twist at the end that I could never have thought of!

    • I really have to give Sherlock Holmes another chance. I wrote him off forever in ninth grade after reading The Hound of the Baskervilles in English class, but that may not have been fair. 😛

  8. I don’t read very many mysteries, but enjoyed reading your review. I thought it was funny that you mentioned that fact about cilantro because I was watching Rachel Ray the other day and she said something about cilantro and some folks not liking it and I missed her explanation because my kids were being noisy. So now I know that cilantro tastes like soap to some people. How strange! Obviously I’m one of those cilantro-loving folks. 🙂

    • I love cilantro. I feel so sorry for people who didn’t get the gene. Every time I get a bite of food with cilantro in, I love it all over again. Gorgeous.

    • I love Have His Carcase. I’ve liked the Harriet Vane mysteries much better than Sayers’s other books, but I can never decide definitely which of the three is my favorite.

    • You must read them. I think it’s neat that each of the books is a slightly different type of mystery. She says in her letters that she tries to write her mysteries with a different idea behind them each time, and that’s definitely the case with the Harriet Vane series.

  9. Great post and Gaudy Night is my favourite DL Sayers. I have read it and read it so many times my copy is worn out and now that you have written about it, I feel the urge to read it again. The conflict between Lord P and Harriet and the mystery of the author of the unpleasantness runs together beautifully. The old TV series with Edward Petheride as Lord P is wonderful but sadlly still not reissued on DVD and is ruinously expensive if you can track down old copies.

    Agatha Christie is a lifelong favourite of mine. I know the identity of every murderer in every book she wrote. It is one of those useless pieces of knowledge and has not exactly helped me in my pather through life, but has come in handy at pub quizzes. She is scrupulous at setting out clues for the reader and if we miss them, well, hey it is not her fault. I like to re-read Christie knowing exactly where the clues are and now thinking O gosh why didn’t I see that? but have to say that even now, I miss them.

    Right off to get Gaudy Night off the shelf….

    • I enjoyed the TV series when I had it out from the library a few years ago, and I remember wishing they’d put it out on DVD. If only they knew how happy it would make us! But enjoy your reread of Gaudy Night – it gets better every time I read it. 🙂

      Agatha Christie is fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a better mystery writer than she is, but of course I’m not that widely read as far as mysteries go.

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