Bottom line: Great mysteries, great characters, great writing. I cannot recommend these highly enough.
Rating: Strongly Recommended
Gaudy Night is my all-time favorite book. Not just mystery, but book. The other three books in this series are all very, very good (though I’d rate Have His Carcase a bit below the other three – it’s slow in places). The depth of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, combined with their interactions, feel more real than any other characters I’ve read. It feels more like being in a room with two people you know well than reading a story about fictional creations.
Dorothy Sayers had already written several Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries before Harriet Vane arrives on the scene, but I think it is when she starts writing the Wimsey/Vane stories that she really comes into her own. There are four novel length mysteries in the Wimsey/Vane series. In order, they are: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. These four absolutely must be read in order. Not that the mysteries wouldn’t stand alone, but the overarching storyline of Peter and Harriet trying to figure out if they can be together despite who they are and everything that has happened to them, and what that would look like provides a rich backdrop to all the mystery solving that goes on.
What I love about Sayers work is that she is able to weave an intricate mystery while writing great characters. These aren’t puzzle-piece mysteries, nor are they merely novels with the odd murder thrown in. She is a great story-teller AND a great writer. With that comes a warning: these are not quick reads you can blow through in a couple of hours. These take more mental concentration than zipping through a Christie, but the payoff is so worth it. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!
Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love. As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.
Harriet Vane has gone on vacation to forget her recent murder trial and, more importantly, to forget the man who cleared her name—the dapper, handsome, and maddening Lord Peter Wimsey. She is alone on a beach when she spies a man lying on a rock, surf lapping at his ankles. She tries to wake him, but he doesn’t budge. His throat has been cut, and his blood has drained out onto the sand. As the tide inches forward, Harriet makes what observations she can and photographs the scene. Finally, she goes for the police, but by the time they return the body has gone. Only one person can help her discover how the poor man died at the beach: Lord Peter, the amateur sleuth who won her freedom and her heart in one fell swoop.
Since she graduated from Oxford’s Shrewsbury College, Harriet Vane has found fame by writing novels about ingenious murders. She also won infamy when she was accused of committing a murder herself. It took a timely intervention from the debonair Lord Peter Wimsey to save her from the gallows, and since then she has devoted her spare time to resisting his attempts to marry her. Putting aside her lingering shame from the trial, Harriet returns to Oxford for her college reunion with her head held high—only to find that her life is in danger once again. The first poison-pen letter calls her a “dirty murderess,” and the ones that follow are no kinder. As the threats become more frightening, she calls on Lord Peter for help. Among the dons of Oxford lurks a killer, but it will take more than a superior education to match Lord Peter and the daring Harriet.
It took several near-death experiences for Lord Peter Wimsey to convince Harriet Vane to be his wife, but she has finally relented. When the dapper detective marries Britain’s most popular mystery author—just a few short years after rescuing her from the hangman’s noose—the press could not be more excited. But Lord Peter and his bride have no interest in spending their wedding night surrounded by reporters. They sneak out of their own reception to begin their honeymoon early, out of sight of the world. Unfortunately, for some couples, calamity is inescapable. On their first morning together, the newlyweds discover the house’s caretaker bludgeoned to death in the manor’s basement. If they thought finding a few minutes alone was difficult, they’re up against even steeper odds. In a house full of suspects, identifying the killer won’t be easy.
A few other Lord Peter mysteries:
This was the first Lord Peter mystery, and is definitely entertaining, but I don’t think it is as good as some of her later stories. This might be the only time where I recommend reading the first book AFTER some of the later stories.
I really like this book, but be warned that it does tend to drag a little in the middle. You get a great look at the members of Peter’s family.
This is probably my favorite Sayers outside of the Wimsey/Vane series. The story is set in an ad agency (Sayers was employed by one for a while) and has a really interesting cast of supporting characters.
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