My mystery book group had another fabulous meeting this past Sunday to discuss Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night. I can’t recommend highly enough having a specific theme or genre for your book group; I have limited experience with book groups I’ll admit, but with this one, having a focus has made the discussions so rich and interesting. We’re not looking at the books in isolation, but instead, with every book we read, we’re building a basis of comparison and a body of knowledge about the genre that we can draw on when reading and discussing. Each meeting is as much about the genre and how each example fits into it as it is about the book itself.
I’m beginning to think that there’s actually very little that clearly defines the mystery genre. We’ve seen such a wide range of subjects and styles in the eight books we’ve read so far that it’s hard to make generalizations about them, except for basic ones, like the fact that there is some sort of crime in each of them (often but not always a murder) and some figure who tries to solve the crime (maybe a police officer or maybe an amateur detective or maybe just some random person who gets caught up in the plot), and some solution to the crime offered at the novel’s end. That’s not a whole lot to hang a genre on, but I suppose that’s why the genre does so well — it allows authors to take those basic elements in so many different directions that the genre continues to feel fresh and interesting. The best books we’ve read are about much more than a mystery, reaching beyond the basic plot to say something else.
Gaudy Night pushes the mystery genre in the direction of philosophical treatise, asking questions about duty and where our ultimate loyalty lies, and social commentary, specifically on the question of prospects for women who are smart and would like a career and family both. What I love about the book is that Sayers is unafraid to include long passages of complicated dialogue — long scenes where Oxford dons debate matters of ethics and social policy or conversations where the protagonist Harriet Vane ponders what it means to write mystery novels. There is a plot, but at times the plot seems almost beside the point. What matters are the ideas, and even more so, the changes Harriet goes through as she grapples with those ideas.
Harriet is a marvelous character. I’ve read one other Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors, and I liked it, but it didn’t have Harriet in it and so wasn’t quite as fabulous. I now see that sooner or later I will have to read every Harriet Vane book Sayers wrote. In Gaudy Night, Harriet is interesting because she is conflicted in a dozen different ways. We see her first as she is on her way back to Oxford for a reunion — the gaudy — and it is all she can do to drag herself back. She goes only because she doesn’t want to disappoint classmates who have invited her. The trouble is that she has made a career out of mystery novel writing, which she thinks some in Oxford might not consider a worthy use of her excellent education; she has also offended traditional morality by living with a man she was not married to, and, worst of all, she was a murder suspect herself and only narrowly escaped conviction and hanging.
She finds, however, that the Oxford dons are interested in her writing and are fans of her books, and when disturbing events start happening on campus — threatening letters arrive, lewd pictures and messages appear on walls, property gets destroyed — the dons invite her back to help them solve the mystery.
This turns out to offer her a little retreat in which to think about some of the things that have been troubling her. While working on the case — and also helping an English scholar edit a manuscript and doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu — she talks with the dons about what it means to live a life of the mind, tucked away in isolation from the world of families and children and domestic responsibilities. She has the chance to think about whether a satisfying life is possible for a woman who has brains and a heart both — one who wants to do more than care for a family but doesn’t want to let a career keep her from experiencing love and romance. She worries that she will have to choose one or the other, career or love, and she worries with good reason, as all she sees around her are single women purely devoted to their scholarly lives on the one hand, and on the other, women who have found themselves caring for a brood of children and have lost touch with their intellectual ambitions.
And then there is Peter Wimsey, the charming, attractive amateur detective who keeps proposing marriage to her, and whom Harriet feels she could care for, if only they didn’t have a singularly unfortunate past. It turns out that Peter is the one who saved her from conviction in the murder case, and now she feels she is on unequal footing with him, owing him her life, in effect, and she is convinced those are the worst circumstances in which to fall in love with somebody. She would like to fall in love, but she would like even more to maintain her independence and her pride.
The book moves back and forth between Harriet’s investigation of the mysterious happenings on campus and her conversations and thoughts about what kind of life she wants, and she also interacts with undergraduates, both men and women, so we get a picture of Oxford life, with all its traditions and habits. As Emily writes in her post, Oxford itself becomes a character.
The book does all these things and more. In our meeting, my book group listed all the book types or genres Gaudy Night references, and we came up with a long list: academic satire, mystery, romance, social commentary, comedy of manners, philosophical exploration, feminist manifesto, novel of personal growth, künstlerroman, literary criticism, even political thriller, as Peter Wimsey is always dashing off to Europe on diplomatic missions and it’s clear that World War II is on its way (the book was published in 1936).
So Gaudy Night accomplishes a whole lot in its 500 or so pages, and yet Sayers manages to make it all hang together. It’s a mystery novel and also an illustration of just how much a “mere” mystery novel can do.