Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reading slowly

I collected all of Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter mysteries but it has been some time since I read any of them. This young woman's experience tempts me to return:
...[D]uring a visit to a used bookstore, my attention was caught by the worn blue spine of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. I’m drawn to old things. Old professors, old languages, old books often seem to have the most to offer, and Gaudy Night did not disappoint me. A notice on the copyright page assures the reader that the book was produced in accordance with wartime standards, and the worn pages exhaled evidence of a previous reader’s smoking habit. I was sold. ....

...[H]ere, rising from smoky war-ration pages, was the languid, scholarly “Paradise” of the fictional all-female Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Here was the loving intellect, and women who would rather forfeit a career than commit academic dishonesty. Here was a staid and traditional world, one with room for worship, good food, leisure on the river, and serious scholarly pursuit. A veritable academic paradise, with a devilish snake in the grass. The story opens as Harriet Vane, a young mystery writer, returns to her Shrewsbury College for a class reunion. During the weekend, she hears of obscene drawings, death threats, and strange notes plaguing the college. She decides to stay and solve the mystery, and is eventually joined by the right honorable Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s foppish, aristocratic detective (Wodehouse meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

I charged into Gaudy Night with my accustomed habits, but the mystery slowed me down. Which descriptions were mere setting, and which were vital clues? Were Sayers’s literary epitaphs at the opening of each chapter hints, or just whimsical flourishes? I found myself going back to the pages I had skimmed, sifting them carefully for clues. I started to read more slowly. I kept track of the characters, weighing the evidence pro and con. In the process of careful attention, I found myself savoring eccentricities and details that had nothing to do with the central mystery. ....