I love those Golden Age mysteries! I particularly love Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series because she combines the Classic mystery story with a level of character development you do not generally see with Christie or Allingham. Sayers was ahead of her time, with the kind of complexity of personal relationships and empathy with the wrongdoers that one sees nowadays in P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh or Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. At the same time, she purely entertains with her depiction of the English aristocratic life between World Wars, allowing Wimsey to display a sometimes Woosterian buffoonery that charms while obviously masking deeper emotional complications. Intelligent and literate readers will be attracted by the erudite Sayers’ liberal interspersion of literary quotations throughout her books (the rest of us will simply feel like blockheads until the actual story continues).
Gaudy Night belongs primarily to Harriet Vane. Wimsey was introduced to Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, wherein Harriet, a mystery author, was being tried for the murder of her lover. Upon first seeing her in the dock, Wimsey was convinced that she was innocent and, against all odds, proved it. During the ensuing five years leading up to Gaudy Night, Wimsey has been patiently proposing marriage to Harriet on a regular basis, with equally regular rejections. The relationship between Peter and Harriet is a delightful development in this series, and it all comes to a head in Gaudy Night.
As mentioned, Gaudy Night really belongs to Harriet. She gets reacquainted with Shrewsbury Women’s College at Oxford (where Sayers herself was educated) after attending her college reunion. During her visit, she is asked by the Dean of the College to investigate a series of cruel and disturbing pranks that have taken place on campus. The dons of the college are anxious to avoid a scandal, as the existence of the all-female College – still considered by many to be a modern experiment – is tenuous. With her background of mystery writing and insider status at the College, Vane is the best hope for solving the mystery quietly and discreetly. Wimsey, of course, appears for the resolution, as we all hope he will.
I had a good guess “whodunit” about two thirds of the way through, but the “why” and “how” were still elusive until nearer the end. At any rate, the exposition of the crime, and the resolution of the Peter/Harriet relationship, were well worth waiting for.
Sayers died in 1957, leaving her Wimsey/Vane mystery Thrones, Dominations (begun in 1938) only partially completed. Mystery author Jill Paton Walsh completed it in 1998, with very satisfactory results. Walsh wrote her own complete Wimsey/Vane mystery in 2003, Presumption of Death.
Note: I adore listening to Sayers’ mysteries on tape or CD. Most of them are narrated by Ian Carmichael, who also portrayed Wimsey in the BBC Lord Peter Wimsey miniseries. Read ‘em first though! Much better that way, what?