So, it’s happened again: I’ve fallen for another detective.
Barbara Havers, Cormoran Strike, Kinsey Millhone, Darren Mathews and Jackson Brodie will just have to step aside — for now, anyway — to make room for Harriet Vane, the creation of Dorothy L. Sayers. For years I’ve been hearing that I really should read “Gaudy Night,” Sayers’ 1936 novel in which Vane, previously a supporting character, took center stage to solve a series of unsettling events at her alma mater (Shrewsbury College, a fictional division of Oxford University). When several readers also suggested it in response to my call for great detective novels a few months ago, I thought, well, the time seems right.
And … I guess I can’t whine “Why didn’t anyone TELL me about this book?” because you did. But I could make a very long list of the things that didn’t get done in my life earlier this month because I was busy devouring “Gaudy Night” (be warned: it’s rather long) and getting to know Harriet, who is a delightfully tart-tongued writer of mystery fiction possessed of a shrewd eye for a frock. “Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crepe de Chine, figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?” Harriet demands of the women of Shrewsbury, over scrambled eggs one morning. The dress was a clue — but this query was, for me, the literary equivalent of “she had me at hello.”
Sayers, a novelist, playwright and translator, wrote 14 books featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, a posh amateur detective who plays a supporting role in “Gaudy Night.” (He’s perpetually proposing to Harriet — at one time in Latin.) But this is Harriet’s story, and much of the book consists of conversations between “Miss Vane” and a handful of members of the female faculty and student body at Shrewsbury College. There’s no murder here, but someone is leaving poison-pen letters, repellent drawings and destructive wreckage around the campus; Harriet, drawn back for an alumni weekend, gets pulled into the mystery.
It’s a whodunit, but with plenty of pleasant meandering along the way. Sayers is not only a very funny writer (a fellow alum is described as looking “as though she had been carelessly packed away in a drawer all winter and put into circulation again without being ironed”), but a wise one, making Harriet a smart, feminist heroine who ponders not just clues but bigger questions about life, work and love. Now that I’ve met her, I’m going to have to go back in time and read “Strong Poison” (anyone read it?), published in 1930, in which Harriet and Peter first make acquaintance — and in which Harriet is accused of murdering a former lover. Ooh.
(Speaking of treats, my copy of “Gaudy Night” — bought at a local bookstore — is part of a handsome new paperback collection of mysteries in Olive Editions by HarperCollins. Out now, in limited editions, the collection includes works by Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, Jacqueline Winspear, Anthony Horowitz and more; each is just $10 in a small but very readable format. If I wasn’t steadfastly ignoring the hoofbeats of the upcoming holidays, I’d say these might make good gifts for mystery lovers.)
On the true-crime front, I also went old-school this month, reading Margalit Fox’s engrossing “Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer.” Fox, a New York Times journalist, makes like an Edwardian-era Truman Capote here, meticulously retracing the brutal 1908 murder of a wealthy Glasgow woman. A Jewish immigrant named Oscar Slater was arrested, tried and quickly convicted for the murder, despite flimsy evidence and the absence from testimony of the victim’s maid — who had earlier identified another man as the killer. The trial was so controversial that Slater’s death sentence was commuted, at the last minute, to life doing hard labor. He was, wrote a British journalist, “too guilty to be released, yet not guilty enough to be hanged.”
Enter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose help Slater solicited by smuggling a note from prison — hidden beneath a parolee’s dentures. And off we go, down a fascinating rabbit hole that’s at once biography, courtroom drama, analysis (most engagingly, of Conan Doyle’s methods of deduction) and mystery. Fox shows us how Conan Doyle and his famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, overlapped, and how this case was very much worthy of both of them. The book also delves briefly into the case of George Edalji, a wrongful-conviction case with which Conan Doyle became involved — and which became an excellent novel by Julian Barnes, “Arthur & George.” Is the Barnes novel crime fiction? Maybe not, technically, but I’ll recommend it here anyway.
And with that, I’m off to make the acquaintance of Miss Marple. (Yes, another of those mysterious omissions in my life; just what have I been doing?) And I have a question for you crime-fiction readers, just so I don’t get too stuck in the past: Has anyone read a post-“Gone Girl” psychological thriller that’s as good as “Gone Girl”? Does such a thing exist? Do tell. See you next month.