Critical Context

Although a student nearly kills herself after receiving some thirty poison-pen letters, and although both Harriet and Helen De Vine narrowly escape being murdered, Gaudy Night lacks a corpse. Some fans of mystery therefore have criticized the book as false to the demands of the genre. Sayers, however, regarded this as her best detective novel, and readers were undeterred by the absence of death. Within two months, the book went through six printings and had sold forty thousand copies in Great Britain alone.

Gaudy Night is the author’s most successful effort at fusing the novel of manners with the mystery. Her leading characters assume lives of their own and are not mere marionettes to be manipulated for the sake of the plot. She had admired the mysteries of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens precisely because they transcended the simple detective story, and in Gaudy Night she successfully emulated them. Her knowledge of and respect for academic life allow her to create a vivid portrait of the joys and perils of that world; if the threat of death is remote, the dangers facing the women of Shrewsbury are only slightly less catastrophic. They confront the loss of mutual trust, so essential for any community to exist, and they come close to losing their newly won right to have a women’s college at all.

Having offered this tribute to academia, Sayers soon abandoned detective fiction, writing only one more Wimsey novel, Busman’s Holiday (1937). She had always regarded herself as a scholar, and in her later years she turned to serious drama, research, and the translation of such classics as Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) and The Song of Roland (c. 1100). Before leaving the genre that had ensured her fame, however, she created a masterpiece showing what the mystery could achieve.