Three queens reigned over the great age of the English detective novel – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. If they’d been served at a dinner party, Allingham would have been the clear, carefully strained soup, Sayers the rich and complex game pie and Christie the comforting nursery pudding. It’s thus perhaps not surprising that Christie has continued her reign over the genre, while Sayers has been reduced to the retired queen mother in a nunnery, venerated still by a small coterie of loyalists, and Allingham is a mere ghost of memory.
Yet Sayers deserves to be restored to her throne, to be read and enjoyed by many, for her novels have a richness of texture, a complexity of character and exploration of still-current themes that the sweet, unchallenging Christie utterly lacks.
Sayers fans can be divided into two: the first group is those who prefer Busman’s Honeymoon, in which Sayers’ two great characters, the mystery writer Harriet Vane and the diplomat/detective Lord Peter Wimsey, finally get hitched. And the epistolary appearance of Lord Peter’s mother—the apparently fluttery but always acute duchess, is certainly a Sayers highlight. But that is for the romantics—it has two minds finding perfect accord.
Those of a less romantic bent, among whom I would include myself, prefer Gaudy Night, and this is the novel to which I would direct the Sayers neophyte. Here Sayers is wrestling with the question—new in the 1930s, but still, astonishingly, current today, of whether it is right for a woman to chose profession over domesticity, and whether she should put her ethics and integrity first or always, as politicians’ wives still so often seem to, “stand by her man”, whatever the personal cost.
It is set in a fictitious women’s college in a wholly real Oxford, where a poison pen is causing increasing alarm and distress among students and staff. What the former don’t know is that the offender must be among the latter, and Harriet is forced to look hard at each of the women who have chosen the celibate and professional path, and ask: why?
Some delightful, and delightfully awful, fringe characters also pop into this novel. My personal favourite is the dreadful Miss Schuster-Slatt, a loud American proponent of eugenics and middle-class brood-mare mothers. You get the feeling, however, that Sayers’ favourite might have been the delightful jolly historian, Phoebe Tucker, married to an archaeologist, who has managed the perfect blend of partnership, personal and professional.
Lord Peter, that foppish, high-bred but utterly moral aristocrat, is in the background for much of this book, but brings together the strings of plot and theme in a dramatic denouncement, at which point Harriet has to decide which of the paths she has seen laid out is hers.
The writing is rich – some might say too rich for modern palettes – quotations and allusions to the Great White Males of English letters, to Greek philosophers and Latin poets, fly thick and fast. My 1936 edition even boasts touches of Greek, in the original script. But this is never gratuitous, the references always apt—indeed you might say, Sayers is an original “rapper”, drawing in, melding and remaking, well-worn tracks.
If you want to fill in an hour’s train journey after a tiring day, Christie’s lightweight predictability will meet the bill. But for a satisfying, enriching evening in a cultivated world, Sayers must be the choice.