Harriet Vane once loved Shrewsbury College but does not look forward to returning to its trim grass plots or the stone walls that house shy students. Nonetheless, she does return to satisfy the invitation of a sick friend who would like her to attend the college Gaudy, a feast or gathering of academics for a formal dinner and lectures. In the midst of a jumble of ancient gables and towers, well-known author Dorothy L. Sayers crafts the story of students, faculty and staff who are being victimized by the letters and disturbances of something described as a cross between a poltergeist and a poison-pen.
Gaudy Night is the last in Sayers’ series starring Lord Peter Wimsey. Oxford native Sayers was only child and a translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Each chapter begins with a small quotation that serves as a summary, and this edition is packaged with a new cover design and an introduction by contemporary mystery writer Elizabeth George. As the story unfolds, Harriet is contacted by the warden of Shrewsbury to assist in uncovering who may be responsible for recent disturbances at the school. The administration is anxious to avoid publicity, and Harriet, a writer of detective fiction and an alumnus, seems like a good choice to help solve the mystery.
As an excuse for her presence at the school, the students are informed that Miss Vane will be engaged in research at the library on the life and works of Le Fanu. The person responsible for writing the notes cuts letters out of the newspaper to form the messages and pushes them under people’s doors during the night. This rules out Oxford residents outside the college and creates the problem of class suspicions, since the housekeeping staff also has access to the rooms. The notes are mostly childish drawings or vulgar personal comments about semi-demented spinsters.
When the messages become more threatening and the destruction of property more violent, it becomes obvious to the senior members of the college that they will require some outside help to catch the culprit who continues to remain undiscovered. Lord Peter Wimsey arrives to aide them in catching the foolish practical joker before there is a suicide and the inevitable inquest.
Gaudy Night finds unexpected humor in the ways Harriet’s knowledge of the community of young women in love betray her. She gets into an awkward entanglement with an undergraduate ten years her junior, and she entertains herself in part by observing senior teaching fellows that she has long admired. All of these details and objective touches become enchanting once Lord Peter arrives and she acknowledges that she needs Wimsey for more than his imperturbable mind and his ability to sleuth.
Her beautiful writing, especially in passages like the following, set Sayers apart from the main stream of detective and suspense fiction:
April was running out, chilly and fickle, but with the promise of good things to come; and the city wore the withdrawn and secretive beauty that wraps her about in vacation. No clamor of young voices echoed along her ancient stones; the tumult of flying bicycles was stilled in the narrow strait of the Turl; in Radcliffe Square the Camera slept like a cat in the sunshine, disturbed only by the occasional visit of a slow-footed don; even in the High, the roar of car and charabanc seemed minished and brought low, for the holiday season was not yet; punts and canoes, new-fettled for the summer term, began to put forth upon the Cherwell like the varnished buds upon the horse-chestnut tree, but as yet there was no press of traffic upon the shining reaches; the mellow bells, soaring and singing in tower and steeple, told of time’s flight through and eternity of peace; and Great Tom, tolling his nightly hundred-and-one, called home only the rooks from off Christ Church Meadow.
What continues to be remarkable about the work of Sayers is how relatable it is to contemporary issues. She is willing to explore the dubiousness of the human condition, which in Gaudy Night involves the choices women make regarding whether or not to marry or pursue a career, class distinctions, and whether or not to have children. To read this novel is to peek into the scholarly rivalries in academia and see how Harriet Vane struggles with her feelings towards Lord Peter Wimsey.