As I’ve said numerous times before, I love Lord Peter Wimsey. He’s funny, a brilliant detective, and he peppers his speech with Shakespearan quotations the way I pepper mine with Simpsons quotes. He can always amuse and amaze me, but up until this point, that was extent of my fascination. Before I read Gaudy Night, I had always thought of Lord Peter mainly as an amusing, almost caricature detective. I had thought of him, simply, as a character. After Gaudy Night, however, I can’t think of him this way anymore. For the first time since reading Strong Poison, I see Lord Peter as a human being. For the first time, Dorothy Sayers has presented him as a man, with hopes and fears and weaknesses and emotions. For the first time, Lord Peter is off his pedestal and I’m looking him straight in the eye, and it is wonderful.
I’m already a hefty paragraph into this review and I haven’t even mentioned the mystery aspect of this story. It is, technically, a detective novel, but like so many other Sayers novels (but this one in particular), the mystery is really more of a subplot. In case you really care, here’s my one-sentence plot encapsulation: Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater at Oxford (one of the few women’s colleges at the time, btw) to help figure out who’s been playing harmful pranks on the scholars there, and she enlists Lord Peter’s help.
That’s the whole mystery: who’s been leaving insulting notes around Oxford? If that’s all you knew about the book, you’d probably be wondering how that could possibly take 500 pages. Simple answer: it doesn’t. All together, I would estimate that the actual mystery-solving only accounts for about 200 pages of the entire book. All the rest is about Harriet and Peter. If you don’t see how that could possibly be interesting, you obviously haven’t read Strong Poison. If you have, and still think 300 pages about Harriet and Peter working out their complicated and fascinating relationship would be interesting, you need to read Strong Poison again and pay attention this time.
In fact, I almost wish I had read more of the Harriet and Peter stories before I read this one – I know there are other novels where they interact, and I think I should read those, then read Gaudy Night again just to fully appreciate how far these two incredible characters have gone in order to reach this point.
In conclusion: Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey are the best detectives ever created, and I will fight any Holmes/Watson fanboys who say otherwise.
PS: The last two lines in the book are in Latin, and (without spoilers) I now know what the translation is. The lines are, “does it please you, Professor?” “It pleases” which is a paraphrasing of the degree-granting ceremony at Oxford, and therefore is just too perfect for words.
Verdict: five out of five stars