It is often easier to peruse a contemporary novel than to read a classic. In books with contemporary settings, the language and landscape are familiar, and the characters may remind you of yourself, your friends, or your enemies. A classic, on the other hand, must be complex enough to survive for several generations, often with allusions to ancient literature, historical events, and political movements no longer prevalent in the culture. Although good books are often overlooked, few of us argue that a classic is a classic. A classic bowls us over.
Except, perhaps, in the case of mysteries.
Many mystery lovers I know read only new books and assure me that P. D. James, Lee Childs, and James Lee Burke are classics. (And they may well be right, for all I know of contemporary mysteries.) But for the last decade, I have been steeped in Golden Age Detective Classics of the 1920s & ’30s, due to the recommendations of a friend, an organic-gardening meditating Luddite who has perfect taste in books and is certainly not afraid to rank mysteries as classics. I have especially enjoyed the Four Original Queens of Crime, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. Of these four, only Sayers was familiar to me 10 years ago.
Once you’ve discovered Golden Age Detective Stories, you are likely to spend a year reading little else, at least at bedtime. I especially find Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey series satisfying, and read these over and over, as does the Dorothy Sayers group at Yahoo. Sayers (1893 -1957), an intellectual and one of the first female graduates of Somerville College at Oxford, was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. She wrote 11 Peter Wimsey books and translated Dante.
My favorite Sayers book is The Nine Tailors, a mystery about bell-ringing,a valuable necklace, and murder. But I have most recently reread Gaudy Night, a novel set at Oxford. Harriet Vane, a mystery writer beloved of Peter Wimsey, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, to help solve a poison pen letter case that is destroying trust at the college and may endanger its reputation. (N.B. Some in 1936 when the book was published still believed women didn’t belong at Oxford.)
This is rather a long book, and you have to like to read about college life to enjoy it, because there are many details about academic women, research, losing gowns, getting Firsts, and punting on the river. Throughout it, Harriet Vane agonizingly considers whether or not to marry Peter Wimsey, and honestly I don’t think she loves him, but that is my opinion. Peter Wimsey himself doesn’t come into the novel until late, and that is disappointing because he is funny, smart, and livens things up. The women at the college know they are often considered “unbalanced” because of their spinster status, and are very worried that something may turn up in this case to confirm this prejudice.
I very much enjoyed it, but prefer the Peter Wimsey books. Harriet is an interesting character, but Peter is more complex, in a dapper, monocled, clever way. He joyfully manages to make people underestimate him so he can solve crime.
A fabulous series–I can’t recommend it enough.