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Harriet Vane is a woman of the world. She has a degree from Oxford, writes mysteries for pay, and lives with her lover. Today her lifestyle would scarcely raise an eyebrow, but in the Britain of 1930 depicted in Strong Poison, she's a scandal. When her lover is found dead of poison, few hesitate to assume that she is his killer - especially given that she had been purchasing and researching poisons, ostensibly in preparation for writing a new book. Her initial trial, however, ends with a hung jury. While she is still languishing in prison, the wealthy dilettante investigator Lord Peter Wimsey hears of the case and becomes intrigued - much more so once he meets Harriet in person. With the deadline of a new trial pressing him, Lord Peter must race to complete his case vindicating Harriet, with whom he has become so infatuated that he wishes to marry her.

The book is essentially cool and logical in tone, with an emphasis on uncovering the pieces of the puzzle-box plot: the answer to the question of who actually killed Philip Boyes, why, and how is intricately complex. I was certainly interested enough to finish the book, but if I had read it first - which would have been the proper order - I might never have continued on with Gaudy Night. I was not really engaged by any of the characters, and I don't know that I will ever re-read it.

Gaudy Night takes place a few years after Strong Poison (it was written 5 years later). Harriet, now well-established as a popular mystery author and still resisting Lord Peter's marriage proposals, is attending the annual Gaudy Night celebration - part of a weekend-long reunion - at her Oxford college, Shrewsbury, when she becomes involved in an unsavory mystery. A series of unpleasant and increasingly vicious pranks is being played on women of the college, from professors ("dons," of course, in the Oxonian tradition) to the youngest undergraduates. Harriet herself becomes a victim, and when the Dean of the college asks her to investigate, Harriet of course agrees. The case takes months to crack, and eventually Harriet requests assistance and advice from Lord Peter.

In tone, in approach, and in characterization, Gaudy Night is a contrast to the earlier novel. The focus is entirely on Harriet (with one tiny exception, and that will have to be covered below the cut), and although I can't say that I think that she is completely Sayers' proxy here, it seems that she is much more comfortable in inhabiting this protagonist's skin. I liked Harriet, and was interested in her thoughts about what was going on. The details of the life in an Oxbridge women's college of the time were presented vividly and entertainingly, and Lord Peter was not as nearly obnoxious as he was in the earlier story. In fact, I enjoyed re-reading the novel a month or two after I'd first read it and expect to do so many times in the future, as I do with Peter Dickinson's mysteries.

 

Strong Poison -and- Gaudy Night (review)

Peter's machinations in Strong Poison are amusing, but I kept thinking about how many of them would cause him to be arrested nowadays. Certainly he was guilty of multiple instances of entrapment. And in the end, he does poison the murderer - even though it doesn't result in man's death, and even though he knows it won't.

Gaudy Night presented a large cast of interesting and/or amusing characters. I had to smile at the brash, intrusive American - and will confess that I felt a mild patriotic annoyance at her depiction, a feeling that somewhat surprised me. On second reading, I was also a little disturbed at her obsession with eugenics - and the fact that she was, despite this, being portrayed as basically good-hearted. I guess, though, that Sayers was in fact doing this very much on purpose: in this period, a number of people were facilely agreeing with some of Hitler's ideas about the master race, without thinking the theories through or letting themselves perceive his more sinister notions. There are also some more direct discussions of this topic in the book: understandably, a number of the college's dons and alumnae are annoyed with Hitlerian ideal of womanhood.

On the whole, I think Sayers was playing fair with laying out the suspects. Some of the characters are unpleasant in their own right, some merely dislike Harriet, and yet others seem pleasant but have quirks that might be signs of unbalanced minds: any of them could be suspects for much of the story. I will say that there were so many of them that I'm having a tough time remembering their names, which shames me: I'm usually moderately good with names, and it's not that they don't have distinct personalities. I remember very strongly, for example, that one woman makes rude remarks to Harriet at the first event of the Gaudy weekend about another former student, first saying she wished the other woman would wash her neck and, on being countered with the statement that it was just the poor thing's natural complexion, asserts staunchly that "[t]hen she should eat her carrots and clear her system." But I had to look at the book to remember that this was, in fact, the Dean herself - which surprised me because she is later a very sympathetic character. I have a feeling that as I am a rather messy, unathletic person myself, the Dean might not think much of me, either!

I had very mixed feelings about the revealed identity of the vicious prankster. On the one hand, I certainly didn't want it to be one of the collegians. On the other hand, there seemed something vaguely unfair about the fact that it was Annie: certainly the poor woman had enough trouble in her life already, no matter how cross she made me when she was trying to discourage her young daughter from the ambition of becoming a mechanic.

These books were originally recommended to me as examples of a fictional romance between equal partners, and I think that, particularly in Gaudy Night, it's a good one. Lord Peter is pleasantly restrained in his urge to meddle in affairs to protect Harriet: he provides her with advice at her request and practical suggestions of the sort that he might equally offer a male colleague (the self-defense tips, for example), and does not make any serious attempts to prevent her from continuing her investigations. Harriet's reluctance to give up (as she sees it) her independence by following her heart is presented very sensitively. And I was delighted at Peter's ingenious solution to allowing Harriet to accept his proposal without seeming to give in - although I will confess that I had to resort to Google for a translation of the Latin.

One final comment - and this is the issue I mentioned above the cut: the novel is written almost entirely from a tight third-person singular viewpoint, that of Harriet. But at the climax, just after Annie's appallingly vindictive confession, the voice suddenly and very briefly shifts to third-person omniscient so that we can hear what Peter says to Miss De Vine after Harriet leaves the room. It's rather odd, and I found it disorienting.

Note: as smillaraaq as explained to me, another book actually comes between these two in the joint saga of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane: Have His Carcase. I haven't yet read it.

Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
fmanalyst
Oct. 27th, 2008 01:16 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you reviewed these!I first fell in love with the Wimsey books when I was in middle school, though I don't think I read these two until later. These days Gaudy Night is my favorite of the books, I think because of what it says about what it meant to be an intellectual woman at that point in time.
chomiji
Oct. 28th, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)

Yes, I thought it was interesting how she seemed to work all sorts of permutations of the fate of the educated woman into the story. I mean, in addition to Harriet and to the various dons and research fellows, among the alumnae were a woman who had managed a good professional working partnership with her husband, a woman who had subsumed her education entirely to her less-educated husband's needs, several women who were into "feminine"-type concerns (the eugenics-fancier, for example), and so on.

I think I mainly liked the personal interactions and the vivid dialog they generated, as well as the feeling of being inside Harriet head, which was a fairly comfortable place for me. Also, some of the snapshots of collegiate life at the time were charming and amusing - the fretting over the undergraduates' sunbathing in their underwear, for example.

meganbmoore
Oct. 27th, 2008 01:23 am (UTC)
I mmmmiiiiigggghhhhhhtttttt have snagged an extra copy of Have His Carcase at the booksale. I know I grabbed a couple of Sayers incase anyone needed them. If nothing else, I know what box they'd be in.
chomiji
Oct. 28th, 2008 02:00 am (UTC)


Well, that would be fortuitous ... I certainly mean to read it at some point! Thanks for thinking of it (and of course, for any subsequent legwork)!

smillaraaq
Oct. 28th, 2008 03:52 am (UTC)
Well, if Megan's spares don't include that particular title, I can certainly loan it to you, along with any of the other later/earlier titles you might be curious about checking out. :)

(If nothing else, I'd say you should read HHC just to see how they get from Point A to Point C, and Busman's Honeymoon for the aftermath; and for Lord Peter on his own, the one I reread the most is Murder Must Advertise, which has some marvelous funny-'cause-it's-true, how-little-things-change satirical glimpses at the advertising world.)
chomiji
Oct. 29th, 2008 01:12 am (UTC)

I've got this vision of us swapping towering spires of books ... .

smillaraaq
Oct. 29th, 2008 02:07 am (UTC)
I don't know if you'd like most of the other pre-Harriet Sayers books all that much -- they're more puzzleboxes in the vein of Strong Poison. The dialogue sparkles, Lord Peter is his usual charmingly witty self, the sense of time and place is vivid as always, there's more room for supporting characters like Bunter or Miss Climpson, but...I suspect there might still be a bit too much head and not enough heart for your tastes; at the very least, even if you read through them once happily enough, they seem less likely to be rereaders at the level of Gaudy Night
chomiji
Oct. 30th, 2008 10:05 pm (UTC)

Well, I'll probably not bother paying full price for them, then. They can always go up to the beach house (K & A's place) when I'm through with them, after all. (That's what I do with the more mainstreamish stuff.)

smillaraaq
Oct. 30th, 2008 10:23 pm (UTC)
Oh, lordy, they've been in print forever so never mind full price, unless you're looking for something shiny-new or a very specific edition, there is absolutely no reason to pay more than a dollar or two, tops, for any of those in paperback. There's a ton of older editions on eBay for 99 cents, and lots of freebie copies on Paperbackswap and Bookmooch -- I'm sure you'd find a few at any used book store or library sale, too. (Hmmm, Second Story in Dupont is having a pre-inventory storewide sale, come to think of it...)

Right now, not counting foreign-language editions or the ones you already have, BookMooch alone has two I could snag for you -- Thrones, Dominations which is the posthumous novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh (not bad, and lots of interesting Harriet stuff in it) and two copies of In the Teeth of the Evidence (probably not so much your thing -- all puzzlebox-style early short stories, only two of them Lord Peter) -- actually, I may grab one of those for myself because I don't have the handful of stories that don't feter Lord Peter or Montague Egg...
chomiji
Oct. 31st, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)

Time, time time. I have money for things like paperback books (as opposed to things like a trip around the world or a vacation home or even first editions of Lord of the Rings). I don't necessarily have time to go places to look for them ... . I will probably weaken on BookMooch eventually, if for no other reason than I like the concept.

smillaraaq
Nov. 1st, 2008 12:29 am (UTC)
Ah, see, bargain-hunting is about as close as I come to a competitive sport. Shopping can be a dreary chore, especially if it's for costly stuff you don't particularly want but have to get and on short notice -- but when it's more a matter of low-pressure, idle searching just to see what's available, that almost approaches a hobby for how much I enjoy the process of the hunt itself.
smillaraaq
Oct. 27th, 2008 02:26 am (UTC)
Wheeeeeee!

Yes, you should read Have His Carcase at least once -- I suspect you'll like it better than Strong Poison, although it may still not be as human and rereadable as Gaudy Night -- it's still a puzzlebox mystery at heart, although Harriet is a more central, active character, it's mainly from her POV, and there's more emphasis on the characterization and relationships. It's very much a transitional stage in tone and theme between the first and third books, and it's where you first get to see Harriet and Peter seriously interacting and getting to better know and respect each other. (Peter learns his lesson about the white-knight-riding-to-the-rescue impulse being sometimes unwanted and actively UN-helpful to the would-be rescuee here, for instance, which leads to his changed attitudes towards Harriet fighting her own battles in Gaudy Night.) The shift to Harriet's POV also makes for some very vivid moments of a woman's life in that time and place that we don't get so much in the earlier books, outside of bits and pieces around some minor supporting characters.

You might possibly enjoy the post-GN stuff too, as it tends to get further and further away from the mysteries and more strongly focused on the characters and relationships; they're ultimately lighter pieces than GN, but have some fine character moments showing their adjustment to marriage (and in a couple of short stories, parenthood); the ending of Busman's Honeymoon in particular, where we see for the first time in vivid detail just how deep Peter's PTSD runs and how much some of the consequences of his detecting, which he at times seems so callous about, really weigh upon his conscience...it's very affecting, with enough angst and love to make anyone with a taste for h/c of the more emotional sort very, very happy.

I have a feeling that as I am a rather messy, unathletic person myself, the Dean might not think much of me, either!

Ha, never mind the Dean, Bunter is the real fashion tyrant here. If Lord Peter is always exquisitely turned out, it's mainly because he knows better than to incur Bunter's withering disapproval for anything shabby or in less than perfect taste. ;)

I had to smile at the brash, intrusive American - and will confess that I felt a mild patriotic annoyance at her depiction, a feeling that somewhat surprised me.

Hmmm. If you ever read Byatt's Possession, I'm curious if you'll have a similar reaction to the two main American characters, especially the female academic -- Byatt's another female Oxonian and I personally found Leonora for all of her caricaturization rather amusing -- perhaps because I've known that type myself, and the Brit characters are largely equally quirky, just in different ways.

I guess, though, that Sayers was in fact doing this very much on purpose: in this period, a number of people were facilely agreeing with some of Hitler's ideas about the master race, without thinking the theories through or letting themselves perceive his more sinister notions.

Ah, but don't forget it's not just "agreeing with Hitler" -- there was a streak of support for eugenic theories in the US dating back to the turn of the century, influencing everything from immigration policies and anti-miscegenation laws to the early contraception movement; American eugenics programs like forced sterilization of "imbeciles" was cited by Nazi administrators as inspiration and support for their own activities. Eugenics seemed not to have that level of governmental policy support in the UK, so making the American character be the loudest advocate is sadly appropriate...

And ah, that proposal...happy sigh. I trust you found something book-specific, not a bare-bones Latin-English translator? What's particularly telling is that he's addressing her with an academic title, there in the heart of Oxford; the phrasing and place of all makes it absolutely clear that he's not asking her to choose between head and heart, he wants her to know he views her as a full intellectual peer.

(Got my beta notes, I take it? *grins* Hopes they weren't too blathery...)
chomiji
Oct. 27th, 2008 08:49 pm (UTC)

[Just to set your mind at rest: yes, I got the beta notes ... certainly not too blathery! Will send you a note tonight - LJ was being stupid while I was at home this morning and I didn't see this at that time.]

smillaraaq
Oct. 27th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
Hee, no rush! I just wanted to doublecheck since there was so much mail wonkiness in getting the original file over to me...
chomiji
Oct. 28th, 2008 10:10 pm (UTC)

Re the U.S. and eugenics re immigration: yes, I'm aware -

      "20,000 charming children will all too soon turn into 20,000 ugly adults."

(The comment of a cousin of President Roosevelt, Laura Delanoe, in relation to Jewish children separated from their parents who would have been rescued had they been admitted under the Wagner-Rogers refugee bill of 1939.)

Also, one of the books we had in the house when I was growing up was The Human Pedigree by Anthony Smith, which laid out a bunch of that (and looking this up, I just found myself in a set of funhouse mirrors provided by sites from a bunch of modern-day eugenics types ... ).

smillaraaq
Oct. 28th, 2008 10:51 pm (UTC)
The sad thing is, even leaving aside the more obviously blatant-racist lunatic fringe of modern eugenicists, that "oh, the poor dears, we need to do this for their own good" school of thought has been disturbingly persistent -- there was an absolutely horrific streak of inappropriate sterilizations of tens of thousands of Indian women by the IHS throughout the 1960s and 1970s -- and of course there's been no shortage of smaller-scale abusive sterilization of poor women before and since, particularly poor minority women. And state-enforced forced sterilization of the mentally ill was still going on as recently as the early 1980s. :(
chomiji
Oct. 29th, 2008 01:21 am (UTC)

I know ... those sites had this one loathesome woman who was carrying on just like a character from GN about how "every time the choice is made to use a contraceptive or to have an abortion, the selection is made against intelligence." Gaaahhh! I can't find any other info on her - including whether she has done her duty by reproducing - except that she was at U.Tx. at one point.

sovay
Nov. 3rd, 2008 11:35 pm (UTC)
Placetne, magistra?
chomiji
Nov. 5th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)

Profecto placet!

I sure hope I got that right! Latin 3 was 32 years ago!

sovay
Nov. 5th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC)
I sure hope I got that right! Latin 3 was 32 years ago!

You're good!
chomiji
Nov. 9th, 2008 03:35 am (UTC)
("placet" response)

I'm afraid that was more a tribute to my Google-fu than to my memory for Latin!

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