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20th October
2009
written by Steph
Sing it with me: Start at the very beginning...

Sing it with me: Start at the very beginning...

When it comes to selecting our next reads, Tony and I are VERY different.  I suppose you could call me an intuitive reader – I get a strong sense of the type of book I would like to read next, and select a book I feel will best mesh with those feelings and desires.  Sometimes I want a sad book, other times a lighthearted one.  Sometimes I really want to challenge myself and slowly push my way through a tricky read, while other times I need something fun or straightforward.  For me, there is nothing worse than reading the right book at the wrong time.  For Tony, there is no such thing.  The right book is always the right book; he can make a mental list of the books he wants to read, and then steadfastly make his way through it in order with little concern for whether the tone of what he just read might complement or detract from his next read.  Perhaps it’s a function of having so many books, but sometimes the choices overwhelm me and I agonize over what to read next, but Tony can always happily pluck something from a pile and begin to read with a breezy sense of laissez faire.  I hate that! 😉 Anyway, my point is that for me, context is key, and I think Gaudy Night exemplifies this in a lot of interesting ways.  I was in the mood for something fun, and I haven’t read a fullblown mystery novel in a while, so I decided to give my first Sayers novel a whirl.  I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of her, but I do know that this particular novel is recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust and I also remember reading somewhere at some time that it is not necessary to read these novels in any specific order.  I’ve spoken before at length about how I’m particular about my detective fiction – I like novels from the Golden Age, and I really like my mysteries to be set in England – so really, Gaudy Night (which takes place at Oxford University in the 1930s) should have been just the ticket. The basic premise behind Gaudy Night is that Harriet Vane, a previous member of the fictitious Shrewsbury College, returns for a reunion of sorts (her college’s Gaudy ball… whatever that may be).  While at the college, she comes across a rather lewd and disturbing illustration, but after destroying it, she puts it from her mind.  However, upon returning home, she finds that someone has tucked a threatening note into her academic gown, and similarly vulgar missives continue to arrive at her home.  Eventually she is summoned back to college due to a spate of such letters being sent to both students and academic dons alike.  As Harriet seeks to discover who is behind the sinister notes, events escalate and it becomes increasingly likely that scandal will soon befall and besmirch the hallowed grounds of Shrewsbury unless something is done very soon.  Reluctantly Harriet calls on her would-be paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey, to see if the culprit can be nabbed before someone is seriously injured… While I found the mystery and its setting in Gaudy Night to be sufficiently interesting and charming, I found that there were several barriers to me fully enjoying this novel.  The first is that I do not truly feel that this is a book that is genuinely a stand-alone read.  While the central events regarding the mystery are all divulged within the novel’s confines, another equally prominent storyline seemed to rely on a lot of backstory I simply didn’t have and had to piece together based on the snippets that were referred to in this novel.  You see, Harriet & Peter have quite the history with one another, one so deep that he apparently helped acquit her on the charge of murder way back when (read: in a previous novel).  Ever since then, he has apparently been pursuing her romantically, but Harriet has extremely conflicted feelings towards him, as she is both indebted to him, but also has some anger and resentment as well.  As a first time reader, I found much of their past relations quite murky, and I was not really all that invested in how things would turn out for them romantically.  How could I be, when so much of that storyline felt built upon events and tensions not developed in this novel? The other issue is that while I initially found the Oxbridge setting really delightful (it brought back memories of a summer I spent there as a teen), it also ultimately felt like another element that required more background knowledge than I personally had.  I didn’t fully understand certain dynamics of the Oxford system that UK readers likely would, though perhaps certain elements discussed might even now be considered outdated to modern readers.  I didn’t always understand what all the various events were, or portions and positions of the college, and at time I felt this hindered my comprehension of events.  It didn’t help that, Anglophile that I am, the characters often used turns of phrase that were completely foreign to me, and that I couldn’t always divine the meanings of.  Sometimes the use of jargon, odd phrases, and unknown literary allusions got so bad that I really didn’t have a clear picture at all of what people’s intentions were or what was going on!  Additionally, the number of characters (most of whom are potential suspects) is really overwhelming.  Even more maddening was that while I already felt I had my hands full trying to keep track of who was who, certain characters were frequently referred to by their position (e.g., librarian, bursar, warden (?), dean, etc.,) but then would sometimes also be referred to by their names (e.g., Miss Martin, Miss Stevens, etc.,) and so I wouldn’t always know which name corresponded to which title (and even when I did figure this out, I kept forgetting!)!  This was definitely a book where I felt I would have benefitted from a “Cast of Characters” inclusion! I will say that for the most part these grievances I’ve outlined are rather niggling and petty.  And I think that largely this is how it should be, because it is nearly immediately apparent when reading Gaudy Night that Dorothy L. Sayers was an INCREDIBLY SMART woman.  The language is by far wittier and more highbrow than what one encounters in an Agatha Christie mystery, and this is true even of the subject matter.  It is incredibly fitting that this mystery takes place at an illustrious place of learning, as there are a lot of very erudite discussions and debates taking place throughout the entire thing (and of course, there are many Latin phrase and even ancient Greek being bandied about which… well, see above for my discussion of how my powers of comprehension were often thwarted while reading).  For a mystery novel, this is a long one, around 500 pages.  This is likely due to the fact that the mystery itself often feels like backdrop for Sayers to explore many other issues, specifically the role of women in society.  Much of the book is concerned with the question of how women can seek to balance academics or employment with raising a family, or indeed whether such a balance is appropriate/acceptable.  The novel is set during a time when the ability to attend and receive a degree at Oxford if one were a female was still quite new, and it appears that one forfeited education and profession if one got married.  Clearly these issues concerned Sayers and she felt very passionate about women’s rights, so she spends a lot of time delving into the nuances of the debate.  It’s not every day you find a mystery novel so concerned with social and political issues, and like I say, I think Sayers was very ambitious for turning her lens towards some of them in this novel.  That said, the women of Shrewsbury were not solely concerned with how to value housework versus homework, but also with questions of the appropriate way of dealing with criminals and also many other obscure academic subjects specific to each one’s own area of interest (like linguistics or religion, for instance). Sometimes these discussions and debates would go on for 10 or more pages, and they could get rather dry and I did feel that if one were chiefly interested in the mystery plotline, then there were a lot of tangential bits that I slogged through in pursuit of that.  Don’t get me wrong, I like a wordy woman as much as the next person, but do I ultimately feel this book could have been tighter and more precise?  Yes. I do see why the book is a classic, and I do think that it elevates the genre to a loftier level.  I appreciated Sayers’s writing and her brain, but this wound up being a book that I wanted to like a lot more than I think I really did.  I feel bad knocking a book for being too smart or educated, because those are things I generally do look for in the majority of my fiction.  But here I wanted something fun and largely plot-oriented, and for all that this book is, it is not really that.  I see all of Gaudy Night’s objective merits, and I wish that they more closely aligned with how I personally responded to it.  It’s a smart, thoughtful mystery… and yet most of the time I was bored and/or in over my head.  It pains me to pan a book simply because it is smarter than I am, and I could not in good conscience do that now.  But I will say simply that the score I give this book is the best I could average up based on the muddling of my feelings and what I know this book has to offer.  If you want a book so whip smart that it’ll leave you covered in lashes, look no further.  But if you want a rollicking mystery and are unfamiliar with Lord Peter Wimsey, I would heartily recommend starting elsewhere.  I personally intend to read more Sayers in the future, but I will do what I think I should have done initially, and start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start!) with Whose Body?.  If you do decide to tackle this one, you might find it helpful to read along with this guide, which seeks to elucidate some of the more opaque references. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 10/20/2009

    Gaudy Night is my one of my favorite Sayers novels, but I think you’re spot on in the things you say about her style — and about the mystery being the backdrop (other books are more tightly plotted, as I remember — but I read them in HS). Even if you have read all of the books in order, the exchanges between Harriet and Peter can be somewhat cryptic, so I can’t imagine starting with this one. Will be interested to see if you read more, and what you think of them.

  2. 10/20/2009

    I have not read any Dorothy Sayers, but the first time I read P.D. James, I had a similar impression as when you said ” The language is by far wittier and more highbrow than what one encounters in [most other mysteries]. In the not very broad but perhaps random sampling of UK mysteries I have read, this seems to be the case, as well as a presumed knowledge of Oxford, the British legal system, and so on. I spend a lot of time with Google when I read one!

  3. Eva
    10/20/2009

    Oh no!!!!!! I wish you had e-mailed me, and I would have forbidden you from starting w/ Gaudy Night (Nymeth recently mentioned on Twitter that she had been going to start w/ Gaudy Night, but like 4 or 5 of us jumped on her and said she couldn’t! lol). Once you’ve read more of the series (Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison), you should reread this one. I think you’ll definitely enjoy it more after you’ve gotten to know Peter and Harriet better. 🙂

  4. 10/20/2009

    I had to mostly skim your review, Steph, for the reasons Eva explained above: I have been strictly forbidden to read the Harriet Vane series out of order, and I guess that includes reading reviews of later books in the series too 😛

    A comment on your first paragraph: I wish I could be like Tony too! I’m definitely more like you.

  5. 10/20/2009

    Eva is spot on! If I had known you were going to read this without reading Strong Poison and then Have His Carcass I would have forbidden it too. And Busman’s Honeymoon comes after Gaudy Night. These are the only ones of Sayers’s books where the order much matters, but it *really* matters in these four.

    This book is perhaps my favorite of Sayers’s books, but it only works well if you’ve had the time to fall in love with Lord Peter and to know in your bones that he’s right for Harriet. The suspense in this novel is not built around the mystery–it’s build around the question of what will Harriet do, and that mystery has been building over multiple books.

    I’m not sure I would recommend the first Lord Peter book as a start either because it takes a couple of books for Lord Peter to come together as a character. I started with Strong Poison (the first Harriet Vane book), but Murder Must Advertise would be a good one to start. It’s a standalone novel in which Lord Peter goes undercover in an advertising agency. And Clouds of Witness is another good standalone–in my opinion it’s got the best mix of good characterization and accessibility to the Sayers newbie.

  6. 10/20/2009

    @ Trisha: I will certainly try more Sayers in the future, as I could recognize her talent here, I just knew I was poorly positioned to appreciate it! Clearly tons of people love her, so I think this was just a shaky start for me.
     
    @ rhapsody: Interesting that you felt that way about P.D. James. I haven’t read anything by her yet, but I did buy one of her books at McKay’s, as once again I was told that her books could read in any order. I hope that does turn out to be true as I’ll take witty and highbrow over mundane and pedestrian every day!
     
    @ Eva: I didn’t know there were so many Sayers authorities that were available to me, least of all you! Given that so many of you have expressed dismay at me starting with this book, I am really wondering why the heck Nancy Pearl recommends it in her book! I understand that amongst those who have read the entire Harriet & Lord Peter oeuvre this is probably the strongest and most beloved of the bunch, but it seems poor form to recommend it to people who will not be positioned to appreciate it!
     
    @ Nymeth: For what it’s worth, there aren’t really any spoilers in my review as I only “summarize” what one would gather from the back of the book and little more. But yes, definitely do not start your education re: Dorothy L. Sayers here!
    And yes, I really wish I could be more whimsical in my book selections too!
     
    @ Teresa: Thank you for the recommendations of other Sayers books to try. They really need to do something to indicate this is part of a mini-series or something, I think, as while they indicate on the cover that it’s a Lord Peter mystery, there is nothing to indicate that one’s enjoyment will be strongly predicated on having read other books first (and I certainly wouldn’t have known on my own which ones!). This is the first time in a long while where I have read a series out of order and now I am really ruing the decision to throw caution to the wind!

  7. I’m with you on the picking books by what I’m feeling and what I feel like reading. That is why I am so bad with challenges, and also bad at doing review books — I hate looking at a pile and feeling obligated to read a certain book next.

  8. 10/21/2009

    @ Kim: Yup, I’m terrible with challenges too. It’s one thing if I have to review a book or two for work each month, but when I start feeling obligated to read a lot of books rather than feeling like I’m picking them to read because I want to, then I begin to feel bogged down and it becomes a problem.

  9. 10/21/2009

    Your feelings about this book are pretty much on target with mine. I borrowed it from the library a few years ago, after hearing so many people say it was a must-read. I also felt that I had gotten in way over my head, and there was just so much back story that I had no clue about. I do agree that it is a very smart read, but it was totally not what I had expected and I didn’t end up liking it very much. I’ve often thought I should try again with Sayers, and maybe grab a copy of Whose Body, but every time I think of reading another one of her books, I get vaguely turned off. The weird thing is, I went out and bought a copy of this book after reading it, even though I didn’t really like it. I think I was thinking that it might work for me at another time, and maybe I would start over. Very astute review.

  10. 10/21/2009

    I always get susupicious when someone tells me you can read from the middle of the series. Very rarely are books truly standalone, you miss something (without even realizing it).

    Now, I always read the books in the order that they were written.

    I guess you had some issues with this book requiring you to have some knowledge of Oxford and the British legal system. But I face that problem with tons of books – British and American, I guess I just don’t let it bother me too much.

  11. 10/22/2009

    @ Nish: I think I need to be more suspicious of mid-series reads – I think I didn’t understand fully that the Peter Wimsey books really were a series. I mean, you can pretty much read any Agatha Christie you like without worry, but at least here that was not the case. Normally if I know something is a chronological series I will insist upon reading it in order.
    As for the background info, I only think it was so confusing to me because this is a mystery and so people and places were really important and it was all very overwhelming!

  12. Kay
    10/23/2009

    Great review!

    I am definitely more like you than like Tony : what I read depends almost exclusively on my mood and what’s happening in my daily life. The Man is a lot more like Tony though! He buys his books and reads them in order.

    I loved that review. My knowledge in mystery novels is really slim, and so I had never heard of Sayers. Mystery is definitely a genre I would like to read more of once I’m out of that YA phase! I will be adding Sayers to my list. – although I’ll probably start with the first one! 🙂

  13. 10/23/2009

    @ Kay: Maybe it’s a male/female divide in terms of picking books? So far a few people have suggested their male s.o. just read based on lists and order.
    And I think that if you start with not this book you’ll really enjoy Sayers. I didn’t even dislike her despite being out of my element, but I do strongly recommend you not start here!

  14. […] you recall, not that long ago I wrote about how I’m an intuitive reader and I’m all about reading books that suit my mood; I’ve gotta read books at the right time for […]

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