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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 26 August 2010
About her book "Gaudy Night," Dorothy L. Sayers had this to say:

"It would be idle to deny that the city and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist...." But, "Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its wall founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community.... Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first to the University of Oxford, for having presented it ... with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College--not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground."

That passage will give you a feeling for Sayers' rather grand, even lofty (by detective story standards, anyway) prose style, as well as the tongue-in-cheek, in-your-eye amusement that lurks behind her formal persona.

When I first encountered Sayers and fell into a binge of reading her works, I was a teenager. With the breezy assurance of that age, I confidently ranked "Gaudy Night" as her feeblest work and "The Nine Tailors"--or maybe "Murder Must Advertise" as her best. If anyone at the time had asked me why I had done so, I would have pointed out that the mystery element was only a strand among many in "Gaudy Night," and far from the most important one. Moreover, I'd have said, it's a Lord Peter Wimsey novel and Wimsey doesn't even turn up until Chapter IV, after which he promptly disappears for a couple of hundred pages.

And yet, over the years when, for whatever reason, one of these books came to mind, I might think, "Murder Must Advertise," yes, very clever, Lord Peter writing ad copy and all that, or "The Nine Tailors," yes, very clever, those bells and all that. But for "Gaudy Night," my thoughts would more likely take this sort of turn: that Harriet Vane has some very odd ideas and notions. We certainly are beyond that sort of thing today--but I know some people who share most or all of those very some ideas and notions. They are walking anachronisms and yet, here they are, unquestionably my contemporaries. On some days, I even find myself agreeing with her and concluding that the lunatics have taken over our Twenty-first Century asylum.

Or consider Harriet Vane as a fictional character--amusing, humorless, witty, ponderous, brilliant, too often plodding Harriet. She is, of course, Dorothy L. Sayers (in every aspect that Sayers, herself, would regard as significant), pinned on the pages of the book like some strange sort of moth, a specimen preserved and displayed for the examination of the ages.

I recently encountered a 1944, wartime edition of "Gaudy Night" in a bookshop window. On its copyright page, it proudly bore the motto, "Books are weapons in the war of ideas." The book was published in an era of tight paper rationing and extreme austerity, but what a wonderfully sensuous volume it was with its thick, creamy paper, exquisite printing, wide margins and excellent commercial binding in dark blue book cloth. I snapped it up (how could I not?), and read it that evening. It was, I suppose, my fifth or sixth journey through the book.

I am no longer a teenager (alas), and I no longer consider "Gaudy Night" to be Sayers' feeblest work. It might very well be her best: better than "Murder Must Advertise," better than "The Nine Tailors" and certainly much better than the workmanlike (but no more) translation of Dante for which she abandoned her true literary vocation in her final years.

Some mystery fans downgrade "Gaudy Night" because it is a weak mystery novel. A couple of such fans are to be found right here among the Amazon reviewers of the book. They are quite right. It is a weak mystery novel. It is, in fact, just a novel, but a very good one.

The true peers of "Gaudy Night" are not such classic mysteries as Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" or Marsh's "A Man Lay Dying," but English academic novels, the likes of Amis' "Lucky Jim" or Snow's "The Masters." If the literary arena is widened to include plays, then "Gaudy Night" shares space with "The Browning Version" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Here is Dorothy L. Sayers again, this time as Sayers the novelist:

"Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.... A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture. She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new or old, stretching out reconciling hands to past and present. Folded within its walls lay a trim grass plot, with flower-beds splashed at the angles, and surrounded by a stone plinth. Behind the level roofs of Cotswold slate rose the brick chimneys of an older and less formal pile of buildings--a quadrangle also of a kind, but still keeping a domestic remembrance of the original Victorian dwelling-houses that had sheltered the first shy students of Shrewsbury College....

"Memory peopled the quad with moving figures. Students sauntering in pairs. Students dashing to lectures, their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks, the wind jerking their flat caps into the absurd likeness of so many jesters' coxcombs. Bicycles stacked in the porters' lodge, their carriers piled with books and gowns twisted about their handle-bars. A grizzled woman don crossing the turf with vague eyes.... Tall spikes of delphiniums against the grey, quiveringly blue like flames. The college cat, preoccupied and remote, stalking with tail erect in the direction of the buttery."

Five stars (with flower-beds splashed at the angles, of course.)
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is my favourite of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and has continued to be since I first came across it in my teens.

It doesn't have much in the way of a crime plot, but is very much a story of its time: one which provides a rather wonderful picture of women in academic life, written with the real understanding of someone who has been part of this environment. The book also gives Sayers' best and most sympathetic depiction of Harriet Vane, who (as in `Have His Carcass') is the focal point for much of the novel.

In this book, Harriet has returned to her former Oxford College (the fictitious Shrewsbury) in order to engage in some serious research and academic reflection. As well, perhaps, as to puzzle out what she ought to do about the attentions of a certain, persistent, aristocratic suitor. She seems to be fitting back in quite well with her quiet, intellectual surroundings. Until a series of vitriolic stunts, accompanied by venomous quotations citing female academics as unnatural and unwomanly harpies start to make themselves known.

To put the setting of this novel into perspective: women had only been permitted to obtain degree qualifications from Oxford since 1920 (Sayers herself having been one of the earliest granted a degree), just 15 years prior to the book's first publication. High-ranking and respected women academics, whose qualifications were equal to those of their male counterparts were thus a relatively recent phenomenon.

In academia, women were breaking through into serious careers - though it's clear from the rather cloistered environment of the Shrewsbury Senior Common Room that a woman's decision to pursue this path in the long term could only be at the cost of family. As academic opportunities re-appear for Harriet there is a very real sense of Peter's understanding that she might choose to follow this path and be lost to him, but that if this is her honest, intellectual choice then she must be allowed to make it.

Sayers' stance on the importance of equality in women's educational opportunities rings true throughout this book, though her pro-women platform is not blind to the kinds of cattiness and jealousies that can arise amongst groups of women. There's even some criticism of the university: Sayers evidently opposed the quota restricting the number of women who might enter the institution (introduced in 1927), her fictitious college suppressing the caps imposed by university statute. In this she was ahead of the university by over 20 years.

The courtship between Peter and Harriet also takes a somewhat intellectual turn. There's wooing in the form of Metaphysical-style poetry, and a lyrically-written scene where Harriet sees Peter for the first time as an attractive man. It's a moment of mutual awareness in an idyllic setting - a picnic on the banks of the Isis.

Overall, a rather splendid novel that's perhaps better viewed as a piece of social and educational commentary than as a work of detective fiction.
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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 12 January 2001
well, I simply loved this book. But the ones out there who need corpses and action, turn back now. This is a character-piece. Also, if you haven't read "Strong Poison" and "Have His Carcase", I recommend you read them first. You don't need it to understand the story, but it is necessary to understand both Harriet and Peter Wimsey, and more importantly, their relationship. And if you don't like Harriet Vane, don't bother either. I, for one, liked Harriet a lot, and it was great to see her develop from love-interest in "Strong Poison" to an independant, strongly-built character in "Have his Carcase" and this book. The fascination of this novel is not driven by the crimes committed, but by the atmosphere of the place and Harriet's state of mind. Psychology, philosophy and an entire world-view are examined and presented. One really would like to be part of this community, as it is depicted. But what clinches it for me is again, the romance, if you can call it that. Harriet's relationship with Peter Wimsey at it's best and worst. The developement of Peter is also quite clear,he is given a depth he never had before So, conclusion: a great book, lots of atmosphere, lots of romance, lots of character. I hated it when this book ended...
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I first read `Gaudy Night' about 40 years ago and I have re-read it many times since. It's a book which can be read on many levels. First for the mystery of who is writing the poison pen letters; second for the growing relationship between Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey; thirdly for the position of women in 1930s society; and fourth for the consequences of a crime on those connected with both criminal and victim.

Set in a fictitious Oxford College - Shrewsbury - the story features an outbreak of graffiti and poison pen letters sent to students and staff at the college. Shrewsbury is Harriet Vane's alma mater and she is asked to try and help the dons unravel the mystery. Harriet returns to Oxford to attend the college Gaudy (reunion) and finds no one pays attention to her own chequered past (see `Strong Poison'). When she receives an unpleasant anonymous letter the thing becomes personal and she feel compelled to get involved.

There is tension around the issue of married women not putting their jobs before their families and much ill feeling between certain members of the college on this issue. Should women have careers or should they have families? Can they have both and do both well? There are examples, good and bad, of all situations in the novel. Truth and honesty are also philosophical questions which are involved in the story. Should people be punished for suppressing facts which interfere with their theories especially if the punishment adversely affects their dependents?

Relationships between men and women and the proper basis for these are also explored. Harriet values honesty in herself and others and does not see her role in society as looking after a man and bringing up his children. Should women always put their husband and children first? This is a novel way ahead of its time as it foreshadows the questions posed by the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

If you read this novel solely for the crime element you may be disappointed as there is no murder and the crimes involved are relatively minor. The book needs to be read in the context of the mores and morals of the 1930s rather than applying the standards of the 21st century to the behaviour of the characters. That said, there is much in this complex novel which is still of relevance in today's world and it is well worth reading several times in order to appreciate its structure and the way the clues and red herrings are placed. It is a masterpiece of plotting and its sheer craftsmanship far outweighs the odd jarring note which may be apparent to modern readers.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 28 March 2002
Intellectually rapacious, heartstoppingly romantic, and fiendishly clever, this is Sayers' finest hour. The full blooming of Harriet and Peter's romance is handled so beautifully - we see LPW as he really is, stripped of the Woosterish facade he has always adopted in the past. And we realise just why he loves Harriet - she is an intellectual partner for him in every way. The Oxford setting is perfect - the all-female college is brilliantly handled - and Sayers manages to be feminist without drumbeating. And still creates a swooningly old fashioned romance where the hero - finally - gets the girl ... There are better Lord Peter mysteries, if that's what you want (the Nine Tailors, for example), but give me this any day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey novel, though the very different 'Busman's Honeymoon' which followed it is pretty good, too. Written in 1935, 'Gaudy Night' is the tenth and almost the final book in the series which made Dorothy Sayers famous. (She is one of the 'Big Four' women novelists who wrote during the heyday of the detective novel in the 1930s and 1940s, the others being Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.) Harriet Vane, the heroine of this novel, featured in the final four of them.
The title cames from a phrase from Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra.' (The word 'Gaudy' is derived, apparently, from a Latin word, 'Gaudium' and an Old French word, 'Gaudie', which mean 'merry-making'. A college 'gaudy' is a formal get-together for past students.)
The story is set in 'Shrewsbury College', an all-female Oxford college. Sayers claimed to have invented it, but it is very likely to have been based on her old college, Somerville, especially as Harriet Vane is a thinly-disguised Dorothy Sayers. Vane has returned to attend the Gaudy. Someone is doing malicious and apparently irrational things, clearly intended to frighten the dons in particular. Harriet begins to fear that the college will be embroiled in scandal and that murder may be the next step. She invites Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Wimsey is deeply in love with Vane and she has repeatedly refused to marry him. However, she is not prepared to release him from their platonic relationship completely, either. Despite his wealth and influence and his intelligence, wit and popularity with women, he is sensitive and is suffering intensely in this complicated relationship. (I have read that he is based on one of Sayers' lecturers, with whom she fell in love when she was at Oxford).
This is a long and complex novel written in beautiful, luminous prose. Sayers examines the issue of sexuality and its relationship with crime, revenge and also with the intellectual life. In those days, male dons could marry and continue their careers, but women dons could not, because of the expectations of women within marriage. The tone of the book is unhappy. Harriet Vane (who was once tried for murder and who owes her acquittal and therefore, in those days of the death penalty, her life to Wimsey) is confused and unhappy. The burden of gratitude that she owes Wimsey is too much for her and too much for their love affair, if such it is. In those days, it was thought that a celibate life placed inordinate stress on the emotions and psyche and could lead to mental imbalance. Although we do not think like that any more, her picture of the strain placed upon the two main characters is psychologically compelling. The book depicts, too, the struggle of women to achieve careers and independence in the face of traditional expectations of them to devote their lives to a husband. There is a strong feminism in the writing which probably reflects Dorothy Sayers' own struggles.
There is no murder in Gaudy Night and the only significant death takes place before the action begins. This makes it an unusual whodunit! There is plenty of suspense, however and a satisfying mystery and denouement. However, this book is much more than a mystery story; it is a very good novel in which the author discloses her own struggles and preoccupations. It is a book which can be read and re-read. Brilliant!
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on 2 May 2002
Warning: This is not an Agatha Christie puzzle book!!!!! If this is what you want as a reader don't buy it. However if you are looking to find a great book with a brilliant plot then get this.
Not only is this a fantastic crime novel it is also one of the best philosophical novels Sayers wrote. If you have any interest in Wimsey, in womens position in society or in the movement of women into academia this book is definitly for you! The suspense is gripping, will Harriet's heart over rule her head? Can a women have both a career and a meaningful relationship based on honesty? For perhaps the first time this writer has shown that the solving of the crime is not the end of the story, there are always consequences. Without a doubt this is one of the best books Sayers ever wrote.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Set five years after the events of Strong Poison, the fascinating thing about this book is that whilst there is a strong mystery element to it, it's essentially a character study of Harriet Vane who is struggling to come to terms with her friendship with Peter Wimsey and his continued proposals of marriage. In fact, for a book labelled on the front as "A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery", he doesn't appear in person until three-fifths of the way through - until then we have Harriet's thoughts about him, a couple of letters and the appearance of Wimsey's nephew, Lord Saint-George (a kind of 'Mini-PeterWimsey') who effectively subs for his uncle.

You may think that a book that's essentially there to be a 'will she-won't she' would be boring and self-indulgent wankery on the part of the author, but you would be completely wrong because Sayers mixes Harriet's dilemma in with the plot and various philosophical and social theories about the role of the genders, which far from being a dry academic exercise, really brings out Harriet's confusion and intelligence. In fact, the denouement serves as a means for both characters to step back and evaluate what's been happening between them over the previous years and is a catalyst for the happy ending that fans were undoubtedly longing for.

Mixed in with this is a strong contemporary feel to the writing - Sayers deliberately brings in the politics of the time and we see in the background Wimsey's involvement in international politics on behalf of the Foreign Office, as well as some side discussion as to events in Germany (from one Don's protest against the Kinder, Kirche, Kuche regime in Nazi Germany to a very uncomfortable statement from the Porter that "what we need is an 'Itler").

Sayers references the previous adventures of Wimsey and Vane throughout the text, but you don't need to have read them to understand the plot or the nature of their relationship.

My only criticism of the book is that the publishers should really be offering some kind of footnote or endnote translating the Latin/Ancient Greek/Hebrew sections for those of us unable to understand them.

I would also take issue with the publishers New English Library, who are getting money for old rope by reprinting the "new introduction by Elizabeth George" in every addition, along with a postscript on Wimsey, written by Sayers in the character of his Uncle Paul. Personally, I find it cheap and insulting and given the back quotes from a wide variety of well-known mystery writers, it should not have been difficult to find different people to give different introductions to each book. Bad show, New English Library. Bad show indeed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 1 August 2013
My first encounter with Dorothy L. Sayers was the Mobile Mystery Theater series showing on PBS. Unfortunately, I did not realize that my video player was also a recorder until the "Gaudy Night" was on Mystery Theater. In that sense, I was lucky to copy the complete three hour "Gaudy Night." I now own the DVD that came out in 2002.

Naturally, the TV media cannot fill in all the details that you would pick up from reading the book, so I read the book. This added more depth and characters to the story. Dorothy not only fleshes her characters out but her side trips into philosophy and psychology make the story that much more interesting. Just when you ask what is the relevance to this conversation it is wrapped up in the final solution.

It is too bad they do not make the unabridged recording of this book anymore, as the reader is Ian Carmichael the first TV Lord Peter Wimsey.
This is the third of a fourth book series. Enough background information is given however to make this a stand-alone story.

The notorious Harriet Vane is invited to a class reunion. She is looking forward to a quiet time with a better part of her history. Once there, she starts getting notes that carry negative connotations. The notes are pasted together from cut out newspaper words. Soon others are receiving the notes. The School authorities request Harriet to help get quietly to the bottom of this. Circumstances eventually force her once more to go to Lord Peter Wimsey for help. I am over simplifying the plot but it is better to discover it for your self. This is a five star book.

Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries (The Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane Collection - Strong Poison / Have His Carcass / Gaudy Night)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2013
I have read criticism of Dorothy L Sayers which says that her books are old fashioned. To me that is their charm. She brings to life a lost era, almost as if she was planning for her books to be read in the future. She describes the smallest details of the period, even though to her, and to her readers, these things would have been ordinary, and usually part of the background. However, to the modern reader her descriptions allow us to become part of that era.

Dorothy L Sayers does not write down to her readers. She expects you to make an effort when reading them, and this possibly explains why some will criticise the books as difficult or even boring.

Gaudy Night requires effort. It twists and turns. Throughout the reader is challenged to think, and then think again. I thoroughly recommend this book, but to gain most from the series, start at the beginning so that you get to know the characters slowly. Peter Wimsey might appear to be half baked at times, but that is Wimsey at his most dangerous.
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