Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Image result for Gaudy night sayers folio

The BBC version! Harriet Walters and Edward Petherbridge being academic….

Image result for Gaudy night sayers folio

This book must rate as one of my all time favourite novels. Gaudy Night is all the things that Sayers does well; characters, especially the so realistic Harriet Vane, setting, Oxford at its best, and a mystery, which proves that a gory murder within the first three chapters is not essential. Harriet feels so real because she is the centre of the book, the reader is told of her doubts about the wisdom of revisiting Oxford let alone becoming involved in the mysterious persecution of the College inhabitants, and crucially her perspective on Lord Peter Wimsey. The reader, together with half the characters in the novel, fall for Peter’s undoubted charm and abilities, and obviously Sayers writes with real affection for her creation, yet with a realistic view of some of his weaknesses. Oxford is at its best as the colleges, towers and river make it into another character in this book; not that there is any shortage of academics, students and staff bumping into each other in many ways.

Harriet Vane, author of thoughtful mystery novels and survivor of a murder trial thanks to Peter’s intervention, finds herself drawn back to her old college for the annual celebrations. She realises that she has become a notorious character for her contemporaries, not least because of her links with the famous Peter. She is fascinated by the fates of the other women who have married or who have chosen a career. Her return to London feels wrong as Peter disappears and her novel does not proceed well. When she is summoned back to Shrewsbury College to help solve a mysterious poison pen mystery, she decides to stay, do some academic work, and help the senior staff maintain peace and order. She meets current students and tries to understand undergraduate life; especially when she encounters Peter’s nephew. She becomes embroiled in his difficulties, not least having to contact Peter, who proves as elusive and surprising as always. The mystery is not really dangerous in terms of murder for most of the book, though there is a disturbing element when Harriet and at least one other seem to be in grave danger. Peter’s contribution is not to dominate as he graciously admits that Harriet has done most of the work; certainly he is not seen as the superhero coming in to save the day, but bringing a new insight. Harriet is not a female detective in many ways, but she emerges as someone who cares deeply and is determined to discover what is going on, and why, in an institution that changed her life.

This is such a super read that part of me could have rushed through each episode, each reflection on Oxford life, each observation on the largely absent Peter. To do that would have spoilt some of the enjoyment of a novel that Sayers obviously enjoyed writing with enormous confidence. There are times when it is self indulgent, when Sayers is showing off her considerable education, when she makes jokes and comments in other languages. It is a big book, and reading some editions has put me off as this book needs to be read comfortably and savoured. The folio edition is therefore the ultimate version beautifully printed. I can see that Sayers is an acquired taste, but this novel is enough to send me off to seek the other Sayers book as soon as possible.

This is the final book in the Folio set that was Northernvicar’s last minute Christmas present. At least I read it before this coming Christmas. It is a lovely, lovely novel, and so enjoyable in this edition. Thank you, Northernvicar!



The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a great book, a family favourite, and if only the ending section could be longer. If you have not yet read ‘The Nine Tailors’ you should, as quickly as possible. It has a suspicious death, mistaken identity, fascinating characters with super backstories, and bell ringing. So much bell ringing, it is a classic for those who have even the slightest interest in the subject. As a picture of interwar life in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, it is a detailed account of flooding and the problems of maintaining usable roads and fields. The characters really work as people, in all their failings and strengths, and the search for justice on several levels occupies many minds.

Sayers most famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is travelling in a snowy winter with his faithful manservant, Bunter. A mechanical failure leaves them searching for shelter, which they find with the Rector of the church in Fenchurch St. Paul. Despite his wife trying to calm him, the reverend gentleman is concerned with the attempt to ring a peal, which could be derailed by the absence of one of the regular ringers. Wimsey knows ringing and the obsession it can be, so takes a rope and there is much detail about the ringing of the peal. Wimsey also becomes involved in the village community, the traditional ringing of a solo bell for a death, and the loss of Lady Thorpe, whose family has been suffering after the theft of some emeralds some years before this tale. The crime has left other victims as those involved with the missing gems still live in the local area.  When a body is discovered Wimsey and Butler commence investigations, which involve tracking one person to France. It is an involved story, but so well told with many accurate church descriptions that Sayers’ specialist knowledge is displayed.

My favourite part of this novel is the section that I wish could be longer, as a flood hits the three Fenchurch villages. Without spoiling the suspense, the rector and wife organise the sanctuary of many people and their livestock in the church and rectory. During the two weeks of isolation the community comes together and Wimsey discovers some facts which solve the mystery.

This novel shows Sayers writing at the height of her powers, with her favoured Wimsey central to discovering what has really happened, and becoming a trustee for a determined young woman. Each character, however, is really well drawn in this book, even if they are not central to the story, and I get the impression that Sayers really enjoyed writing it. Despite the absence of Harriet, it remains my favourite Sayers novels, and the cold and wet weather setting is a refreshing read for hot weather!

(Image via Amazon)

Some of you may remember that one of my Christmas presents (apart from Selwyn the Vicarage Cat) was the Folio set of Sayers Wimsey novels as illustrated above. I set myself the challenge of reading all five books by the end of June. I am going to fail! I still have Gaudy Night, and remembering that I had to give up reading a paperback copy because it was awesomely long in an unwieldy  form I know that I will not read even this lovely edition in a few days…Still, I have really enjoyed reading these books and will be tackling G.N. as soon as possible!

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

The plan of reading my folio set of Dorothy L Sayers proceeds apace, with my reading of Murder Must Advertise  which I greatly enjoyed.  Many editions of these books are available, which means that anyone can get their hands on a copy easily, which makes a nice change from some of the more obscure books I read. I do enjoy reading these lovely books, though, with their nice clear print. Excellent Christmas gift, Northernvicar!

Image result for Murder must advertise sayers folio


Variously described as a Golden Age Murder Mystery, or a good novel with a murder in it, I really enjoyed reading Dorothy L Sayers  Murder Must Advertise   which features her near perfect detective, the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey.

Following the death of Victor Dean, copywriter, Mr Pym of Pyms Publicity advertising agency, Peter is called in to investigate and he opts to become Mr Death Bredon, aspiring Copywriter. He earns the tremendous sum of £4 per week, which is a first for the amateur detective, but he enters the skilfully described world of advertising with interest. As a former copywriter herself, Sayers draws on her specialist knowledge to create an office world peopled with real characters which includes the workshy and the pedantic. The intricacies of advertising become more than the background for what soon emerges as a murder. Peter’s disguise extends to gaining entry to the murky world of drug dealing and a 1920s fast set which reflects a world of young people bored and seeking sensation, which Peter’s disguised Bredon provides. Soon a relative is assaulted, drug dealers are pursued, and there is much chasing around London as the guilty and desperate emerge. For those who want a more traditional setting for murder, there is even a cricket match to enjoy in the latter part of the book.

I enjoyed this book for its satisfying characters, despite the absence of Harriet, as they try to second guess the guilty. There is peril and excitement as the puzzles are worked on, which I found fascinating, and the atmosphere feels just right. There are some amusing tales of advertising and its niceties as Sayers explores the world of those who try to attract the attention and money of those who earn little but have big aspirations. Martin Edwards says that it shows her “fierce sympathy” for those who could be influenced by advertising in this period. Also, one character says grimly to the super rich Lord Peter, “You don’t know what it is to be stuck for money”, and grimly I remembered that Sayers was often seen to be writing these novels for the income and as wish fulfillment of the perfect, rich man. Either way, this is a picture of world that Sayers knew, but in comparison she has little clue about the drug parties and dealing which influence the guilty. Some deaths and murders also slip by unnoticed, but by that time I was so interested in the plot that I found them less concerning.  This is a strong mystery which is not obvious, and makes for a fascinating read. It is a Golden Age classic, written by Sayers at the top of her form even if it was not her favourite. With the current interest in reprinting murder mysteries of the early twentieth century this is a great starting point for those beginning to read this  type of novel with a good plot, a solid atmosphere and one of the best characters.

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

I have finished another volume in my Folio Sayers set! It’s still only January…

I have also been away for a few days, apparently on holiday but really on a book buying tour. Heffers in Cambridge was raided for crime once more! I actually picked up two Dean Street Press crime books to feed my addiction, and saw some Furrowed Middlebrow paperbacks in real life. The new books due in March look as if they are also going to be worth collecting as well; see  for many more details.

Have his Carcase refers to not only the body which is the feature of this mystery which spends much time establishing that a murder has indeed been committed, as the nature of the death leaves open the question of suicide. The title refers to the other basic necessity in a murder mystery; an actual body to have an inquest on. Another problem is actually arresting someone and having sufficient evidence to charge them with a crime, as suspects are elusive and alibis seemingly unbreakable. It is undoubtedly a clever book, with Sayers doing her best to combine her usual mystery creation, characters and relationship into a good read.

This novel starts with Harriet on a walking tour, solo but with money and time on her hands after her acquittal as recorded in Strong Poison. Lord Peter Wimsey is absent though living in hope that she will accept his frequent proposal, and soon arrives when he hears that she has found a body. Significantly, she informs a newspaper of her gory discovery rather than Peter, but when he hastens to assist in the case she is genuinely pleased. She has done everything right given that the body is not only bloody but about to be washed into the sea, in that she takes photos and removes all identifying items. It is fortunate that she does, as the body disappears and she has to walk a long way to discover a telephone. This journey does mean that she picks up a few clues en route, which prove valuable in the long run.

The focus on Harriet in this novel does predict her determination and abilities in detection which really dominates Gaudy Night,  as her appearance in Strong Poison is much more passive apart from the banter with Peter. Peter does do some sterling work in detection, including his “lounge lizard” persona adopted to impress a female witness. He also comes out with some priceless lines in his typical self mockery and appeals to Harriet.

My biggest problem with this book is the abrupt ending, even if it is well worked out a short epilogue would have been enjoyable. It also becomes very technical at one point as Sayers brought in another Detection Club member with specific expertise (according to Martin Edwards in his book on Golden Age Murder). I was also continually remembering the tv adaptation, with is actually very faithful to this novel.

I enjoyed this book as the plot is clever and substantial, the characters/suspects complex and realistic, and the Harriet – Peter relationship as funny as ever. I would recommend this book as a well written, readable and a worthy addition to the Lord Peter series, even though he is not the first detective on the scene.

Strong Poison – A Classic Murder by Dorothy L. Sayers

One of my favourite authors for all sorts of reasons is Dorothy L. Sayers. I have given a talk on her, read many of her books, and love the versions made for T.V. I have mentioned Edward Petherbridge and Ian Carmichael on this blog before, and I have watched and rewatched all of the videos, now dvds, which have aged, but are still most enjoyable. So I was really pleased to get a Folio set of the five main books for Christmas.

Image result for folio dorothy l sayers

It includes my favourite, even if it does not mention Harriet Vane, The Nine Tailors,   and a larger print version of Gaudy Night . 

The first chronologically is Strong Poison.  I’m sure that I have read it before, so this time I read it quickly but with great enjoyment. It recalls the story of Lord Peter’s first encounter with the love of his life (even if she doesn’t know it yet), Harriet Vane. Unfortunately it transpires that she is on trial for the murder of her lover, Philip Boyes, who died of arsenic poisoning after he met Harriet to fruitlessly seek a reconciliation. Happily for Peter and Harriet, a staunch supporter of Peter’s happens to be on the jury, and manages to avoid a unanimous verdict. That leaves Peter to see Harriet in prison , assure her that he loves her, and they enjoy the banter and humour that will typify their relationship. (That’s not a spoiler; the existence of a relationship which starts so inauspiciously is well known to anyone who has picked up any of the later books)  . She is understandably unsure that he can work a miracle and save the day, especially when he has a bare month to find sufficient evidence to convince another judge and jury to dismiss the case against her.

Things that I like about this book include the conversations between Peter and Harriet which show such dry humour, the redoubtable ladies of the Typing agency, especially Miss Climpson who shows enormous resource in mastering specialist skills to great effect, and the overall clever nature of a book which lifts it way above the standard whodunnit.  I know that I have written in glowing terms about many murder mysteries, but Sayers wrote books which may centre on the mystery but are also superb on character, method and motive. Many commentators think that Sayers was a little in love with her own creation, Lord Peter,  and writing Harriet was a sort of wish fulfillment. Possibly so, but if so she makes him very self aware and her so reluctant to accept his offers that they emerge as real people. My other favourite is the Dowager Duchess, who is never shocked even by Peter’s excesses and enjoys the comforts of her life hugely.

So, one book down, four to go. Of course, other editions are available of this really lovely book…

Image result for strong poison dorothy sayers                            Image result for strong poison dorothy sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers Unnatural Death….and a talk to come

Dorothy L. Sayers created one of the most popular detectives in the 1920s and 1930s, Lord Peter Wimsey. A man that could have been dismissed as a fashionable twit, he instead opts to become an amateur detective, of the very best type. He does make leaps of deduction which stretch belief on occasions, but essentially there is a lot of dashing about in fast (for the day) cars, fascinating characters and interesting locations. The methods of murder are various and thoughtful; the plots are definitely well worked out. There is also a lot of social comment and historical information to be found in these novels, and anyone with and interest in the period would be well rewarded by reading how some of the people lived.

Of course, for many the novels get more interesting (and arguably better balanced) when the character of Harriet Vane is introduced in Strong Poison.  Certainly I find them more enjoyable when Peter has someone else, as bright and intelligent as he is, to argue with through the cases. There has been a lot of discussion that Harriet is in fact Dorothy herself, and I’m not sure that’s any bad thing. Gaudy Night  does take some reading, but I think it has to be approached as different from the murder mysteries which proceed it.

Unnatural Death (1927)   is a lesser known novel of Lord Peter’s adventures; at least I do not believe it was filmed for television, with either Ian Carmichel or Edward Petherbridge, in the 70s or 80s. It features a lot of charging round the countryside and more than one murder, arguably. Peter does a little work in disguise, and there is some protest from Parker as the senior policeman in the case as he   gets dumped with the more boring bits. There is a lot of coincidence to contend with, as well as some unlikely motivation for some events, but essentially it is an interesting read of its type. It does hinge on a legal argument which I found intriguing, but it is a bit obscure. There is an argument for a family tree here, as well as some wincing over attitudes to race and gender. It is a good read, and for Peter Wimsey completists  essential to the development of Peter’s character.

I enjoyed the television versions on video, and the good news now is that you can get them all on dvd. Really enjoyable period pieces, as of course even the recordings are last century…

Image result for ian carmichael

The talk? later in June I’m giving a talk on the spirituality of Dorothy L. Sayers, which is proving an interesting challenge. She wrote some very interesting Christian plays and essays, which are a little more challenging than even the most obscure murder. My friend Michel Hampel is doing a lecture on Sayers at St Paul’s Cathedral over the next few days, so it may be worth investigating. Of course, she wrote a lot of the advertising for Guinness Toucan…


And the two men who brought Lord Peter to life…..


Fancying a literary character? Murder Most Foul…

If we are honest, I think many of us have come across a character in a novel that we would really like to meet. Those of us who grew up in the twentieth century many have encountered Jo in “Little Women”, while younger people may well have obsessed about any of the Harry Potter characters. Admittedly, it may also have depended on if we saw a tv or film version with an actor in that really carried the character well; Alan Rickman in just about anything, David Tennant ditto, not forgetting Jason Isaacs introduction to the Kate Atkinson books, which seem on a quick glance better than the scripts that BBC 1 have filmed. Not that I saw the most recent episode, owing to a mouse incursion in front of the tv. Daughter + cat to the rescue…

The hardcore favourite in this house for all though is Lord Peter Wimsey. From a young age offspring were subjected to videos, audio books and the novels of Dorothy L Sayers, and the tv versions at least have remained well up in the Desert Island Discs of programmes to watch. I realise that Sayers has her critics; only the other day a friend was remarking how dated her style is. They are complex books, of the Golden Age with all that implies about class, money and coincidence. They do remain with the reader/ viewer for so long, and attack such meaty issues as the death penalty head on. They are far more complex in their plot and settings than Agatha’s, which may partly account for there being far fewer of them, and they are far more difficult to film. But who can forget Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge carrying off the honours as Lord Peter in the tv versions…even though some of the other casting is pretty wince inducing…

Our favourite is Nine Tailors, which is set largely in the sort of fenland village well known to husband and self, where the highest point and therefore sanctuary in time of flood was the church. When we first moved “Up North” there were historic local floods and we wondered if we would have to copy the novel. Happily for us the book is accurate about medieval building design!

Having read and reread the Sayers canon, it was good to discover that Jill Paton Walsh was picking up the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter and Harriet Vane and continuing beyond Busman’s Honeymoon to bring new mysteries and stories of sleuthing into wartime and beyond. There was thought to be some overlap of writing in the first of the new Lord Peter novels, Thrones and Dominations and the subsequent novel, but The Attenbury Emeralds is pure Walsh, being set in 1951. Wartime rationing and realities, financial challenges and family developments are the background for this novel which makes for complex reading. The list of characters in the front comes in very handy!

I must admit to struggling with the first few chapters where Peter recounts the tale of a long ago mystery,but it is necessary to the novel as a whole. When the novel really hits its stride there are all sorts of details which are fascinating to anyone with a working knowledge of the history of the characters.The mystery and connected murders is very complex, but eventually mostly becomes clear.I am trying to imagine coming to this novel without background knowledge of the Sayers writing, and I would perhaps suggest reading a few of the sixteen Sayers stories first if you don’t know them. This new book is undoubtedly enjoyable for fans, and adds a great new story for all of us who wondered what happened next in the lives of the main characters.