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Over my life in education, there have been two points where I have been obliged to read books which I would most certainly avoid were it not for necessity, only to find myself proved wrong in my assumptions. The first was with Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', which I managed to escape for GCSE but which returned to collar me at AS level. The second was this gem by Dorothy Sayers. Not generally being a fan of either crime fiction books (with the exception of Forsyth's blinding 'Day of the Jackal'), or literature which my mum would read, this definitely came as a pleasant surprise.
The premise of Sayers' murder mystery is, surprisingly, not a murder. The protagonist, Harriet Vane (whose story progresses of a series of novels), is invited back to her Oxford college to attend a 'gaudy', which is a form of celebratory gathering. As soon as she arrives, mysterious happenings start to occur at Shrewsbury College (modelled closely on the college Sayers herself attended at Oxford - Somerville). A prankster starts to leave abusive graffiti, destroy people's work, and the escapades escalate to the point where at one point Harriet is almost killed. Harriet's friend and admirer, Lord Peter Wimsey (who also appears in several other of Sayers' books), an aristocratic and very intelligent detective, is invited to the college to root out the culprit. Without giving the plot away, Wimsey ends up discovering who it is and why they have done it (which itself proves a very interesting back-story), and proposes to Harriet at the close of the novel.
The book is set in 1935, and a major theme is that of female emancipation. Oxford did not award women degrees until 1920, and Cambridge until 1947. Sayers studied her degreeand earned a first with honours in 1916, but was not awarded it until four years after. It was a real decision that women had to make between being an independent, career-pursuing lady or a housewife who looked after her family and home. This is perhaps a harder situation to empathise with in the 21st century when we are fortunate enough to have affordable child-care and flexible employment, as well as policies on maternity leave and the like.
As well as being detective fiction, this is very much a love story as well. The inception of the romance between Harriet and Peter in 'Strong Poison' (the prequel to 'Gaudy Night') really comes to the fore, with whole passages devoted to Harriet's thoughts on the man, and Peter's constant and gently relentless pursuit of Harriet.
For those who want a light and witty read, or to have their minds exercised by the intelligent banter between university alumni which is scattered throughout, or who want an original twist on the traditional crime novel, I would recommend this book heartily.
Dorothy L Sayers, famous for whodunnits, was crowned as one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Although some of her books have been televised in relatively recent years, she no longer seems to be quite as well-known as Agatha Christie. However, as a fan of crime fiction, I have always loved her books and would like to see them more appreciated. The main detective in her books is Lord Peter Wimsey, who is not a policeman, but rather a private sleuth who also happens to be very high-bred and wealthy.
Dorothy L Sayers was born in 1893 and her father was headmaster at Christchurch Cathedral School. She studied at Oxford University, where she got a First in modern languages. She later worked for a publishing company and began writing in 1923. In later life, she taught herself Italian and translated Dante's Inferno. She died of heart failure in 1957.
Harriet Vane, who is ardently admired by Lord Peter Wimsey, is asked by the Dean of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, her former college, to investigate a series of anonymous letters that members of staff have been receiving. Harriet herself had received one during a gaudy, or students' reunion, at the college earlier in the year and so was intrigued enough to temporarily move to Oxford to work on the problem. She finds that the perpetrator is becoming more and more violent - causing damage to the buildings. There is concern that the next step will be murder and in fact one student who had received letters tried to kill herself, but was stopped in time.
The perpetrator must be either a member of staff, one of the few current students who were attending vivas during the reunion or the scouts (staff who wait on the dons and the students), because no-one else was at the college during the reunion. Despite this and work on the part of Harriet and some trusted members of staff, the perpetrator manages to keep her distance.
Harriet becomes very concerned for people's safety, and writes to ask Lord Peter for his help. He arrives and takes over the investigation from Harriet, also concerned that the perpetrator may commit a more violent crime. He is right - Harriet is attacked and badly hits her head, but survives. Could it be that Harriet and Lord Peter are getting too close to the truth?
Harriet is a sensible woman, who was asked to investigate the anonymous letters because she is a writer of detective stories. Lord Peter fell in love with her when she was on trial for the murder of her boyfriend. He was able to clear her name, but despite regularly asking her to marry him, five years later she has still not agreed. She is a very likeable character and I think is the main reason I liked this book more than most of Dorothy Sayers' work - Lord Peter does not come into the story until about half way through. Lord Peter can be very annoying - he is far too posh for his own good and is too much of a know-it-all for my liking. I enjoyed their relationship, particularly because I have read later books and know that they eventually get married.
One of Dorothy Sayers' better books. It is full of suspense from start to finish, all the more so, because the reader is expecting a murder to be committed, although it never actually is. The ending is also very strong and unexpected. Some criticisms:
1) It is far longer than is necessary - some 440 pages in my version. The same story could have been told in 300 pages.
2) As already mentioned above, I'm not too keen on Lord Peter's character, although luckily he is not as involved in this book as in others.
3) The language is old-fashioned - Sayers' work seems far more dated than Agatha Christie. This is slightly off-putting at times.
On the whole though, I would thoroughly recomment this book to any fan of crime fiction.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.39, published by New English Library. ISBN: 0450021548. It is also available on CD for £12.99, also from Amazon.
D. L. Sayers is one of the best detective story writers.