By January 29, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

Gaudy Night

Knowing that many readers today have been trained by our societal clock to never luxuriate in any enterprise, I almost hesitate to recommend a book for discussion that took me a week to read.

But when the book is Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, it is easy. 

The basic plot of this murderless detective novel, the tenth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, is that Wimsey’s love of five year, Harriet Vane, has been steadfastly putting him off each time he proposes marriage.  When her old college of Shrewsbury at Oxford celebrates a gaudy and a character assassin goes to work, Vane decides to stick around and figure out whodunnit.

Proving to be more about other things then the actual investigation, this richly plotted, thick atmospheric novel takes its sweet time dealing with the state of women’s education, the stresses of academic life and the foolishness caused by romance.  In addition, because it is Sayers, it is also filled with ancient quotes, poetry, references to classical literature and other challenges to the reader that go unforgivingly unexplained. 

But the quotes from Sayers herself make her Dorothy Parkeresqe.  Here are some of my favorites from the book:

“Learning and literature have a way of outliving the civilization that made them.” p. 48

“That was the great possession in which–with all his limitations–the scholar could account himself blessed: the single eye, directed to the object, not dimmed nor distracted by private mote and beams.” p. 66

“Because, though nine-tenths of the mud might be thrown at random, the remaining tenth might quite easily be, as it usuall was, dredged from the bottom of the well of truth, and would stick.” p. 75

“The trouble is,” said the Librarian, “that everyone sneers at restrictions and demands freedom, till something annoying happens, then they demand angrily what has become of discipline.” p. 106

“If you learn how to tackle one subject–any subject–you’ve learnt how to tackle all subjects.” p, 163

“But now you have the age of national self-realization, the age of colonial expansion, the age of barbarian invasions and the age of the decline and fall, all jammed cheek by jowl in time and space, all armed alike with poison-gas and going through the outward motions of an advance civilization, principles have become more dangerous than passions.”  p. 339

However, the payoff quote for those who follow the series becomes:

Placetne, magistra?”


Now you have to spend a week reading the book to find out why.  Then you will want to discuss it with someone.



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "Gaudy Night"

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  1.' Donna says:

    I read this book a few months ago for the first time. Never have I encountered a “mystery” that was so literate. It was hard reading–in a very good way. I needed to draw on all of my resources to follow it and came away thinking that my education was just not up to par. What a wonderful book.

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