Gaudy Night

The penultimate episode in the ongoing saga of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, though by rights the order of the pairing here should be reversed, for this is a resolutely female story belonging to Sayers' prickly lady novelist.  Of the four Wimsey/Vane books, Gaudy Night is regarded as the masterpiece, and I suppose this is mostly to do with the serious bend it takes, both in character and plot. For once the mystery without—the investigation of an escalating series of threats and acts of vandalism at Harriet's Oxford alma mater—is central to the book's thesis, as it clarifies the greater dilemma within; that is, how a modern woman (circa the 1930s) is to make her way in the world. More specifically, how she's to go about defining her proper job while reconciling the head with the heart, and how to determine whether surrendering to one is necessarily a betrayal of the other.

(Now allow me to be a girl for a moment and offer this sidenote of admiration along with a 70-year-old SPOILER: the fact that Sayers cleverly keeps Lord Peter—her dapper and ingratiating hero—offstage for more than half the novel has the curious effect of inserting his mute spirit into nearly every scene. It also allows Harriet to learn about him things he has previously not chosen to reveal himself, and it's this—coupled with his decidedly changed manner once he does appear—that finally tips her heart in his direction. Meanwhile, by virtue of seeing him almost exclusively through Harriet's eyes, we learn and fall as she does, in fits and starts and finally one great bounding leap, albeit in the form of a simple Latin refrain that I could never have managed sans Google; i.e., "Does it please?" "It pleases." Such is the value of a late twentieth century American education, and the skill of a writer who has so carefully laid the tracks of revelation that she's managed to pull the rug out from under her previously untouchable creation—in one fell swoop making him both human and worthy—long before we've realized this was her intention all along. And by "we," of course I mean "me." You may well have been on to the game from the start.)

"Detective fiction" seems too slender a peg to hang this one on, but there you have it: a roundly satisfying read, and that great, rare sort of book that belies its own surface to keep giving more.