Sunday, May 30, 2010

paretsky, sayers

#56 Fire Sale, Sara Paretsky
#57 Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers

In spite of having read both books at a fair interval from each other, they struck me with an important thing they had in common apart from the obvious -- crime novels, female protagonists, female writers -- which unites them in my eyes.

In Fire Sale, VI Warshawski returns to the neighbourhood where she grew up, a grim, eroding part of Chicago's beleaguered South Side. What starts out as a temporary assignment to coach her old high school's basketball team becomes a dangerous entanglement with the neighbourhood's only significant generator of employment, the department store conglomerate By-Smart [that is exactly what you're thinking it is in real life] and the shady family of Christian fundamentalists who own the company. Warshawski is very aware of the privilege she has earned, having been one of the few kids who has succeeded in getting away. Her involvement in the fallout of By-Smart's crimes is both debilitating and thankless, but it is also a matter of conscience - not an obligation, but a moral stake in the fortunes of her childhood home.

Warshawski is the dogged, upstanding, quick-tongued, tirelessly proactive detective that washed-up shamuses who defined and been defined by urban American literature only wish they could be. She really is a hero -- not because she has the privilege of being always in the right, but because she takes that stake of hers, that responsibility to her world, very seriously. It is intensely personal in Fire Sale, but also, from the only other Warshawski novel I've read so far, inclusive of the wider community of which she consciously retains a membership. If the detective is the principal literary figure to embody the values of the enlightenment, it is also true that she or he is a chief figure in the twentieth century's creative engagement with identity. But Warshawski is never content to take up the Charon role that other detectives can sometimes smugly assume, bridgeing the unbridgeable and speaking the unspeakable. She has the Marlovian sense of duty and Marlovian notions of honour, but I think her sense of humour stretches a little further than Marlowe's, and her pragmatism strikes a note very different from the Golden Age's disappointed romanticism. Reading this very Bush-era novel in the years of Obama [that other South Sider-come-lately whose engagement with his adoptive Chicago are such a crucial element of his books], I find it striking how Warshawski also acts as a bridge between two corresponding eras of hope, cynicism and activism.

This sprawling, somewhat rambunctious, knock-down-drag-out story is very different from the classic Gaudy Night, the first Sayers novel I have had the dubious pleasure to read. It is a classic from-chaos-to-order mystery starring the stately, clever Harriet Vane and the somewhat fey genius-level Renaissance man Peter Wimsey. I might have been very struck by Wimsey had I not earlier read Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles [written considerably later than Sayers' books, I note] before this. The Lymond Chronicles feature a fey, genius-level Renaissance man, who actually dates from the Renaissance, in their starring role. I hate Francis Crawford with a passion -- somehow these gorgeous blond imperialists just don't do it for me -- and I credit Dunnett's great talent for creating a lovable supporting cast and her scholarly/swashbuckling style for keeping the books readable. Similarly, Gaudy Night is fantastically readable for its own style, and for the character of Harriet, but is too airless, and too classist, to be otherwise tolerable. In Sayers' book people are always saying what they ought to say. Ideas are always explored fully in dialogue in a way that you would only expect from a novel set in a serious-minded ladies' college in Oxford, and there are perpetual glimpses of a living world that, alas, reverts to type the minute conversations are over. There's something very satisfying about Gaudy Night as a romance, where two characters dancing around each other say things like:

"...However. should you characterise me as a heart or a brain?"

"Nobody," said Harriet, "could deny your brain."

"Who déniges of it? And you may deny my heart, but I'm damned if you shall deny its existence."

which I love, and would have put in a romance novel had I thought of it [and if I were writing a romance novel]. As a mystery, though, it starts out brightly articulated within Harriet Vane's own mind, and then unravels as she loses its threads, delivers them into the hands of Wimsey, and resigns herself to the role of courageous sidekick as the dreary, distasteful revelation comes about.

Yet there is one important tack to Gaudy Night that Sayers manages skilfully, if repressively. This crime, and this mystery are also primarily a way for Harriet to redefine her relationship to a a place central to her own identity - Oxford. The resolution of the crime is a way for Harriet to return control of itself to the social hierarchy of those dreaming spires. Across an intellectual and geo-political gulf so wide that they may seem almost to be working across different genres, both Vane and Warshawski are returning home; not just to bridge the unbridgeable, or speak the unspeakable, but to repay the unrepayable. In the ironclad conservatism of her Oxford, Vane is nonetheless part of a pioneering generation of women for whom their duty to their education is paramount. Warshawski recognises both the futility and the discomfort of having to be grateful for one's roots. But both of them end up shouldering that a burden traditionally appropriated by men - of a love for city and community that transcends the personal, and that both Sayers and Paretsky successfully manage to root very deeply in the personal. As someone who keenly feels that love -- that sense of the unrepayable debt -- to the city I live in, this is even more meaningful than the wittiest of romances.


  1. You write so beautifully... and what a thoughtful analysis of Gaudy Night! I've always sensed something similar about Harriet's attachment to Oxford and the debt she owes the place that had a huge hand in shaping her character and intelligence, but I was never able to articulate it as well as you.

    "Somehow these gorgeous blond imperialists just don't do it for me" - ha. I often found myself trying to like Wimsey more than I should, but have finally decided that I'd probably go out of my way to avoid him if I knew him in real life, so... yea.

    I enjoy reading Dorothy Sayers' for the quality of her prose, which I also enjoy in Edmund Crispin - the kind of dry, hyper-literate and wordy style that goes a long way in helping one forget about the sorry trivialities of a bad day. But I have issues with her characters at times (even Harriet).

    Anyhow, love your blog - will be visiting often. :)

  2. I have to confess that I love Gaudy night for all the wrong reasons. A decade at Oxford left me more or less institutionalised and by the time I had ended my JRF it was very clearly time to leave but when I go back it feels more like home than anywhere else on earth. (This may have something to do with the mildly peripatetic nature of my upbringing, I suppose). So the issue of the role Oxford can play in one's intellectual and social identity is entirely resonant with me in an alarmingly similar fashion. Gaudy Night feels like sinking into the most comfortable armchair, possibly in the SCR with a cup of Earl Grey and a cucumber sandwich. Superlatively comforting in a guilty-secret sort of way.

    Wimsey is like one of those quite gifted students who's not quite as good as he thinks he is (and it is always a man, somehow), provoking simultaneously an indulgent smile and a roll of the eyes.