“What is your favorite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”
Narrow it down to just one classic science fiction or mystery novel? That’s a very tall ask, but I love both genres, so I’ll give it a go anyway. First, a couple of honourable mentions: I think And Then There Were None might be the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, and it’s wonderfully well crafted. Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene, transcends the genre in its discussion of good and evil vs. right and wrong, uses insistently beautiful language to describe unspeakably terrible things, and creates the brilliantly despicable Pinkie. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which is definitely classic sci-fi and I will fight you on this if necessary) is one of the places I repeatedly go to for encouragement and laughs when I need them.
Despite these and other outstanding books, I think my favourite classic mystery is Gaudy Night by DL Sayers. In fact, if I were forced on pain of pain to name my five favourite novels of all time, this would probably be in the mix. I am an avid fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey books anyway, but this one reaches new heights. For a start, Sayers just accomplishes so much through her writing. At the time, people worried that women who attended higher education would end up not quite right, presumably because they mostly remained single and everyone knows that the only way for a woman to be happy is to make home for a man. This book manages to celebrate women in academia, especially the early pioneers, while simultaneously railing against the unfair constraints they experienced as opposed to the men’s colleges. It addresses the fact that women in academia are at far greater risk from a scandal than their male colleagues, and the truism that they have to do twice as well at anything to be half as good—a subject which is uncomfortably timeless. Although I make an effort to read about women in STEM, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that directly and overtly discussed these issues, and certainly not as successfully as Sayers does in Gaudy Night.
On top of that, the setting—I am an absolute sucker for anything set at an Oxbridge college or a facsimile thereof*, and this combines a college setting with the best aspects of a boarding school novel. While reading it, I really did feel like I was creeping along the corridors out of hours for illicit cocoa. This is a feeling I haven’t had since I closed the Mallory Towers books for the last time. The sense of fun in boarding school stories has been grown up somewhat here, as is appropriate—but it hasn’t been lost. Sayers’ love for Oxford academic life comes through extremely clearly even as she critiques it. The ritual and ceremony associated with Oxford colleges is portrayed affectionately. I didn’t go to Oxford, which was one of my childhood dreams**, and reading this helps me to feel as though I’ve experienced it to a point.
And Peter and Harriet’s romance: my “I don’t get invested in fictional romances” rule has a MASSIVE Peter-and-Harriet caveat. I think this is one of my favourite relationships (romantic or otherwise) in all of literature. Sayers is at pains to build up the relationship between them until it is an extremely fond, firm friendship—a relationship of absolute equals. Peter’s respect for Harriet is apparent throughout, but never more so than in the scene below. I know I’ve quoted it before on this blog, but it is honestly so important to me:
“More generously still, he had not only refrained from offers of help and advice which she might have resented; he had deliberately acknowledged that she had the right to run her own risks. ‘Do be careful of yourself’; ‘I hate to think of your being exposed to unpleasantness’; ‘If only I could be there to protect you’; any such phrase would express the normal male reaction. Not one man in ten thousand would say to the woman he loved, or any woman, ‘Disagreeableness and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should’. That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light; but that seemed hardly likely”.
I’ll be going to Oxford for work soon, and I half-expect to run into Peter and Harriet, kissing on a punt (in a punt? If I’d been to Oxford I would have learnt the proper terminology). Sayers weaves the setting and their relationship together—brilliantly, because it is in that environment, where Harriet is in her element, that her absolute equality with Peter can be best demonstrated. They flirt in Latin telegrams and talk about obscure Donne texts and it’s just a lovely, geeky, happy relationship. (Also, Peter is very definitely middle-aged, and I’m fairly sure Harriet is too. How often do bookish middle-aged spinsters get to be leading ladies in a love story, hmm?)
Finally, of course, there is the actual bulk of the novel, which is the mystery. Sayers is very good at writing unusual mysteries, but I don’t think I’ve read another adult novel where anonymous notes and vandalism are the leading plot. It’s easy to dismiss it as a bit Nancy Drew, but Sayers successfully creates an incredibly tense atmosphere. At the time, this type of thing would have been absolutely devastating to the reputation of a women’s college. Reading about all the different ways people can be killed gets a bit wearing if you read lots of classic crime, so it was fun to read a mystery that took itself seriously but didn’t involve murder.
I absolutely love this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough, really—though you should probably start with the other Peter Wimsey books. At the very least, begin with Strong Poison and make your way through the Harriet Vane books until you reach Gaudy Night. (Maybe stop before you get to Busman’s Honeymoon, though—end with her best). In fact, writing this enthusiastic review has prompted me to pick it up and revisit it sometime very soon.
*(Except for Jude the Obscure’s Christminster. This is one of those books that I cannot believe has ever materially improved anyone’s life, and even the existence of an Oxbridge-type place cannot save it).
**I am very happy in my beloved Southampton. Just, Oxford, you know?