This story, set in a fictional women’s college in Oxford in 1935, in some ways took me back to my student days, and in other ways made me conscious of how times have changed. The setting is similar to some of the Inspector Morse stories by Colin Dexter, but the times have changed, manners have changed, and crime novels have changed.
The Inspector Morse stories, like many modern crime novels, are police procedurals rather than whodunits. But in Sayers’s pre-war novel, the police don’t appear at all; It is all private investigators, and it is a true whodunit in that the reader is offered the same clues as the detective and is challenged to work out who the perpetrator was. In this case I found it pretty easy, and the chief suspect stood out as soon as the clue was revealed.
But the whodunit aspect was only a small part of the interest of the book, for me at least. This was the Oxford of the Inklings, the literary group that included some of my favourite authors, and it is said that Sayers moved on the fringes of that group herself.
I was a student in the UK (in Durham) about 30 years later, and that is now nearly 50 years ago. I don’t think it is just because I remember it that the 30 years between 1935 and 1965 seems much greater than that between 1965 and 2015. The academic concerns seem fairly similar, but the formality of manners present an enormous difference, In this book everyone, don and student alike, is referred to as Miss So-and-So. First names are hardly ever mentioned and I found that made it difficult to remember the characters and their roles. Thirty years later, we referred to everyone by nicknames. The Principal of the college was “the Prin”, the vice-pricipal was Brang, and one of the tutors was Piglet. So there seemed to be an enormous gulf between the students of the 1930s and those of the 1960s,
Another interesting thing about the book was the issue of feminism. Women’s colleges were still something of a novelty at Oxford, it seems, and there was quite a lot of discussion about the role of women, and the tensions between academic and family life. In part, this was dictated by the plot, and the choices faced by the protagonist Harriet Vane, and it turned out to have more to do with the plot in the end, but there was also the 8-year-old girl who wanted to ride and repair motorbikes when she grew up,
So it was an interesting book in many more ways than just a novel of crime detetction.
KIt is also interesting