Oxford, MA

Classic Campus Mystery: Gaudy Night

The Fiction Addiction

Retro Gaudy Night Cover(novel cover via the publisher)

I chose Gaudy Night based on the recommendation in All The Beautiful Lies, as one of bookseller Bill’s top campus crime novels, along with Last Seen Wearing and The Secret History. Turns out this is book 12 of a mystery series, but it mostly stands alone.

When Harriet is talked into returning to Oxford for a reunion at Gaudy Night, she find a nasty, anonymous note in her gown. She’s not the only target, as a series of nasty poison pen letters and graffiti starts to appear around the college.  There’s no particular target, almost all of the women receive a cruel note or another mean-spirited prank. Some seems to be targeted to a women’s particular romantic problems or academic struggles, but some are just generally hostile. One particularly awful tactic targets a middle-class scholarship student, constantly insisting that she doesn’t belong at Oxford, she can’t keep up, and she’ll be sent down any day now, when everyone else realizes how mediocre she really is. Exactly the dark thoughts of impostor syndrome. 

A women’s college is already under so much scrutiny, and the academics all share a horror of bad press, so they ask Harriet, a mystery author and alum, to quietly look into the cruel, anonymous notes and escalating pranks. Harriet eventually brings in Lord Peter Wimsey, the protagonist of the whole series, to help solve the case. 

Gaudy Night(novel cover via the publisher)

This was almost an accidental manners novel, just because the upperclass protags were so deeply shocked by the idea of shaking hands, at Oxford, and so thoroughly convinced that only fellow elites could know a Latin reference. There’s also a hilariously upperclass question of whether the well-bred, well-educated college ladies would even comprehend the meaning of some of the (never actually stated) epithets in the nasty notes. And while Harriet and the other women consider Marriage and Fulfillment in the abstract, their food is cooked and their laundry is done by another class of working women. 

It was very strange to have one character who says England needs a good strong Hitler and another who works to sterilize “the unfit,” and those weren’t the villains. Just normal 1930s people with normal 1930s opinions!

Guady Night had one of my unfavorite mystery moments, though. I love when Poirot or Holmes asks a surprisingly detailed question that makes it clear he’s already got a theory. But I cannot stand the sleuth announcing that he’s already solved the case and will share that with the others when the moment is right. UGH. It’s difficult to care for a character who knows better than all their friends and happily tells them so, and it feels like a cheap way to build tension. Not a fan, Wimsey. 

Overall, a well-plotted mystery with an almost a locked-door feel because the culprit could only be one of the college residents. 

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