Friday, February 15, 2008

Don’t Miss This Mystery Series

Sometimes I get caught up in reading the newest and latest mysteries and forget there are excellent mysteries that were written decades ago. I thought I’d share my favorite series from the first half of the 20th century in hopes that would inspire other people to share their favorite authors from long ago. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a four-book series between 1930 and 1937 featuring her well-known sleuth at the time, Lord Peter Wimsey. The books are, in order, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. I’d highly recommend reading them in order, although if you are short on time, I think Gaudy Night is one of the best mysteries ever written and it can stand alone. Sayers’ mysteries are all well-thought out, intricate puzzles.

In this particular series she introduces Harriet Vane, a mystery author, who initially is on trial for killing her ex-lover. Lord Peter Wimsey steps in, as he often does, to disentangle her from this mess. In the process he falls in love. She does not. The next three books each have a mystery at the core, but also follow the Wimsey-Vane relationship. It is a remarkable series for the time, especially with the inclusion of a strong, independent woman as a lead character. It is also remarkably undated, although I think there are some academic quarrels with how Sayers represented servants. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University and was possibly trying in this work to imagine how two highly educated people would work out the issues of love and work. I think this is timely today as the women I know struggle with raising a family and a career simultaneously.

Gaudy Night deserves special mention. It is a mystery set at Oxford, where Harriet Vane, a former student, is asked to help. Here is a portion of the author’s note to help set the tone, “Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute.” Someone is harassing the students and teachers of this women’s college and early on it becomes evident it must be an inside job. Sayers lays a trail of clues that upon further readings of the book make the identity of the perpetrator clear, but I had no idea the first time I read it. Lord Peter Wimsey appears only at brief intervals to advise Harriet Vane, but those scenes are some of the best-written emotional scenes, which involve hardly any physical contact, that I have ever read.

Feel free to send me your suggestions for great mystery authors over the years at escapetobooks AT gmail DOT com, or leave them as comments.


Jen Willoughby said...

I really like the way your blog is laid out. I also noticed your top 10 fiction list. We have quite a few in common. I have read 6 of your 10 and LOVED 5 of those. I look forward to checking out some or all of the books in this series! -From a MomWriter Mama

Pete said...

Thanks for the tip re Dorothy Sayers - have been meaning to track her down for a while and your review of Gaudy Night gives me the motivation I need. Don't read many mysteries on the whole but really like Rankin.