Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

An excellent book, but one I wouldn’t have been able to finish without spoilers. It’s got a very slow start, and even 100 pages in I couldn’t tell most of the characters apart, or match character names to titles to dialogue.

I almost quit the book, but then I reread the essay in Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great that got me to read it in the first place. By giving away the ending, and filling in some of the gaps in a modern readers’ knowledge — for example, in 1936, when the book was written, if a college-educated woman got married, she could no longer teach at the university, making the family-or-career choice a stark one — Walton’s essay opened the book up for me, and let me pick up on the multiple ways gender politics is woven throughout.

This is the first time spoilers for a mystery not only didn’t ruin the story, but positively enhanced it for me. If you plan on reading the book, I’d recommend reading Walton’s essay first, if only to equip you with the knowledge of the day that Sayers assumed all her readers had.

I noticed two interesting things about the way the book was written.

First, almost all the action is conveyed through dialogue. There’s a few scenes where Sayers describes what a character does — flicking on a light, for example — but most of the time, Sayers lets her characters talk about the action, or lets us guess that action is taking place by having them describe it. It makes the dialogue feel more real to me, somehow, when we don’t have to interrupt the character’s speech to say something as mundane as “he put on his hat and coat.” Instead, we can let the character’s personality shine through by having them talk about their hat and coat as they put it on, or mumble about how they need to get that elbow patched or complain about missing buttons. However, it doesn’t seem to work well when the reader isn’t familiar with the actions involved; there was a scene in Gaudy Night where the main characters were boating down the Thames, and I couldn’t picture anything that was going on.

Second, the way in which the theme of gender politics gets echoed throughout the book felt masterful to me. It comes up in multiple conversations, it lies at the heart of the mystery, and it’s the core of the problem Harriet Vane (the main and only perspective character) wrestles with throughout: whether to marry Peter Wimsey, or rejoin the scholarly world at Oxford?

I think it even shows up in the structure of the book itself: most of the characters are women, all of the suspects are women, and it’s a woman that leads the investigation for 3/4 of the entire book. It’s a Peter Wimsey Mystery without much Peter Wimsey at all, and the only men that show up most of the novel are adjuncts to the narrative, distractions from the main events, rather than principal players. It’s something that’s all-too-rarely done today, and it must have seemed radical in 1936. I think it was also done deliberately, to make the book not only contain discussions of gender politics and the roles of men and women, but be a shot fired on the side of equality.