Lord Peter Wimsey is not the quintessential sleuth. He has a beginning, middle and presumably an end – by which I mean he develops as a character throughout the novels, unlike Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot who resolutely stay as their eccentric selves from their first story to the last. Of course, there is a chronological progression of events; and Poirot actually dies; however as characters they are static. In contrast, we see Wimsey age and mature from a frivolous youth to an idiosyncratic middle-aged man – in the course of which he manages to woo and win the attractive Harriet Vane, the famous mystery author whom he manages to save from the scaffold.
Wimsey and Harriet’s troubled love affair is an integral part of many of the novels. She keeps on rejecting his suit, because of her indebtedness to him; according to her, it would be like King Cophetua and the beggar-maid. However, Peter does not have such a holier-than-thou attitude, but he finds it difficult to convince Harriet, more so because of the subdued nature of his wooing. Of course, it is very clear to the reader that in her heart of hearts, she loves him.
Dorothy Sayers had to put a satisfying end to this romance, while keeping her mystery stories ticking: she does a masterful job in this novel. As a mystery, I found it much below par than many of her other novels. However, the important thing here is the love story, which is adeptly handled.
The novel, for much of its part, is driven by Harriet. She attends the ‘Gaudy Night’ in her old Alma Mater, the Shrewsbury College for Women in Oxford, where she gets a couple of nasty anonymous letters accusing her of getting away with murder. Since this is not all that uncommon in her life, Harriet does not pay much attention: but things take a serious turn when nasty things begin happening at Shrewsbury. A ‘Poison Pen’ is at work: worse still, the same person is behaving as a poltergeist, destroying property and writing obscene graffiti. The college’s reputation is targeted. The Dean and company do not want to call in the police, being frightened of the scandal it may create. Harriet is roped in as the investigator, later on joined by Wimsey, who as usual does an efficient job. During the course of the investigation, Harriet finally admits her feelings for Peter, and the story ends in a highly satisfying manner with the lovers locked in the traditional kiss.
The novel is overlong and rambling: and since there is no murder, tends to get repetitive with the atrocities committed by the miscreant. There are so many characters that one loses track sometimes. However, Sayers has done a fantastic job of creating the atmosphere of academe and the struggles felt by the women of early twentieth century, caught between the pleasures of the intellect and the demands of the flesh. In fact, the mystery itself centres on this dichotomy and the solution of it suddenly provides Harriet with the “Aha!” reaction with regard to her own confused feelings. The underplayed British humour is also there, very enjoyable as with any English novelist (Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse) while describing love-struck youths behaving like imbeciles.
I found that unlike her other mysteries, this one was best if taken at a slow pace, like a lazy Saturday afternoon on the university grounds.