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Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

1090888This is the first of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books that I've read. Although Peter is the series' main character, it takes him a while to appear in this book - the main character is Harriet Vane, a friend of his who has been involved in some of his previous cases, who is called back to her (fictional) old Oxford college, Shrewsbury, to investigate a series of unusual occurrences, including anonymous letters sent to residents of the college and other unsavoury happenings.

I enjoyed the mystery itself; it was unusual (in not being a murder mystery, or a straightforward crime), and I definitely didn't see the ending coming - looking back, there were some clues, so it might have been possible to have had a guess at the culprit, but I obviously wasn't paying enough attention.

I also liked the characters a lot and the development of Harriet's and Peter's relationship was really well done - although this book does rely on some backstory in the previous novels I was able to pick up enough of what had happened to understand what was going on, although I may have missed some details - it would probably be better to have read the previous books in which Harriet appears in first (which I do intend to do). The secondary characters I felt were also very well drawn; although I did find it hard at times to keep track of who was who - since most of the characters are just referred to as Miss ---, it was hard to remember who they all were. But most of them were interesting and felt real.

From a historical viewpoint, it was interesting to get a glimpse of what university life was like for women at that time and what has (and hasn't) changed. By this time the idea of women going to university was accepted by most people (in England they started going in the late 1800s, and were first allowed to get degrees in 1920), but the students and staff at the college still have to face sexism and disapproval from a significant number of people, and preserving the reputation of the college is very important - because if the college is made to look bad then it reflects on women's education in general. This is of course important in the story as it is why the events going on are so dangerous for the college, and why they ask Harriet to investigate, not wanting to attract outside attention by applying to professional detectives or the police.
 
One thing I did find, is that this was a book that you have to pay attention to - it's quite dense, and some of the characters (especially Peter and Harriet) tend to have a habit of speaking in metaphors and saying one thing when they mean another. So you have to pay attention to work out what they actually are saying. There also occasionally say things in Latin (fortunately there is a helpful translation guide here).
 
All in all, reading this book was a very enjoyable experience, although it was more a book for reading slowly and taking time over rather than a suspenseful quick read. It's definitely a book I will be reading again; there are certainly a lot of subtleties and allusions that I missed the first time, and I suspect it is one of those books that you have to read several times to fully appreciate. I will of course also be checking out the rest of the series (most of which are much shorter than this one).
 
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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