This post is not an normal Empty Shelf post, and it contains affiliated links.
The other day, someone posted a link to Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night for Kindle for only $1.99. And of course, I had to get it, even though I already own the paperback. Don’t judge me! (Oh, look! It still is! Get it!)
First: What’s a gaudy? As near as I can tell, it’s an English college reunionish sort of thing, but not exactly. Basically, it’s a school function that alumni are invited to. I think. The English are weird.
Okay, to the book review-ish!
Title: Gaudy Night
Author: Dorothy Sayers
What’s it about: Sayers wrote mystery novels, and her main hero is Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey’s love interest is Harriet Vane, also the subject of one of his investigations. I won’t go into the details of their relationship because “Spoilers!”, but suffice it to say that the boy gets the girl in the end. Because of course he does, this is popular fiction. But in addition to the surface mystery and the resolution of the long-term story line of the Wimsey/Vane relationship, this book is another chapter in the deeper theme of all of her mysteries: the cost of truth. Here the setting is a woman’s college at Oxford, and the principle characters are the dons, i.e. the professors.
What I thought: Seeing as I’ve read this multiple times and I bought the Kindle version when I already own the paper back, I think it’s safe to say I like it. I like mysteries in general and Sayers in particular. She’s a smarter, more interesting Agatha Christie (and I like Christie.) One good thing about re-(re-re-re)-reading a book, is that you pick up on things you missed the first dozen times. This time I was struck by the theme of the necessity, the cost, and the difficulty of intellectual truth. A couple of quotes found throughout:
“I entirely agree that a historian ought to be precise in detail; but unless you take all the characters and circumstances concerned into account, you are reckoning without the facts. The proportions and relations of things are just as much facts as the things themselves; and if you get those wrong, you falsify the picture really seriously.”
“To suppress a fact is to publish a falsehood.”
“But if it ever occurs to people to value the honor of the mind equally with the honor of the body, we shall get a social revolution of a quite unparalleled sort–and very different from the kind that is being made at the moment.” (blogger’s note: We seem to have decided on dishonoring both, rather than honoring either.)
“Like you and every member of this Common Room, I admit the principle and the consequences must follow.”
In fact it is the consequences of following a principle that sets up the conflict and the mystery. And that’s all I’m going to say about that, lest I spoil it for you. But the principle, although set in “dry and solemn halls of academia”, plays out among very messy people. And that’s one of the things I like about all Sayers mysteries: even if the circumstances are contrived, the people are real–really messy, really both brilliant and stupid simultaneously, really interesting, and really, in some cases, tragic. And that makes (what I see as) her overarching theme interesting: a commitment to truth, no matter what the consequences of that truth may be. It’s a natural, and interesting, principle for a mystery writer to assume. In fact, it’s one of the things that disappointed me about A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh, based on Sayers work. It was a fun mystery and had the feel of the Wimsey/Vane stories, but in the end isn’t quite the real deal. And one of the reason it fails to capture Sayers magic is Walsh’s inability to let the chips fall where they may. There’s a semi (although not entirely) deux ex machina at the end that I don’t think Sayers would have succumbed to.
Speaking of deux ex machina, Sayers often leaves Latin and French quotes untranslated. You can understand the story line without the translation–mostly–but it may irk you. Here are the translations for Gaudy Night, but read them as they come, as they contain spoilers.
Anyway, I found the idea of the importance and cost of truth interesting because of how unimportant it seems to be particularly in popular discourse and in education. Facts and truth are embraced or disregarded to advance or attack political or philosophical agendas. The Neil Degrasse Tyson kerfuffle is one example. The whole “fake but accurate” idea, and especially the battles surrounding how we teach young people history. Particularly with history, we tend to leave out or minimize the facts that don’t jive with our underlying beliefs and assumptions. (And it works on all sides in every culture on every topic, so take a gander at your own planks before you start pointing out other people’s specks. M’kay?) Basically, we can’t handle the idea that people and life and history is messy, so we think we need to do the truth a favor and clean it up. That’s no way to live, and in the end your house built on a faulty foundation will crash.
All that and ripping good mystery to boot!
Where You Can Get it: Here! But wait, there’s more! You don’t have to start at the beginning to enjoy Sayers mysteries, but I highly recommend you do. Whose Body? is the first introduction to Lord Peter. One of my favorites that can be read alone is Murder Must Advertise. The Wimsey/Vane novels are Strong Poison, Have His Carcasse, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon (which was first written as a play.) As I mentioned, Jill Patton Walsh has continued the Wimsey/Vane storyline with solid, yet not quite Sayers mysteries. They’re still good fun–at least the two that I’ve read. (These should all be available at your public library, by the way.)
Please do remember that these novels are written in a time and culture quite different from our own, and particularly some of the descriptions of race and class are …awkward for us to read. But I think if you read them in the context that they were written, you’ll find that Sayers is fair to every character she writes–as fair as her time and cultural experience can allow.
(Like many homeschoolers, I discovered Sayers through her essay/speech “The Lost Tools of Learning,” a fascinating read for anyone who has ever asked, “What the heck has happened to our education system?”)