RogerBW's Blog

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers 17 September 2016

1930 classic English detective fiction; fifth of Sayers's novels of Lord Peter Wimsey. Philip Boyes, writer on atheism, anarchy and free love, died of quite a lot of arsenic; Harriet Vane, who had lived with him without benefit of clergy for nearly a year until they had quarrelled three months earlier, is accused of having poisoned him. Wimsey, seeing the trial, is convinced of her innocence, not to say smitten by her; when the jury cannot agree on a verdict, he makes it his business to save her from the gallows in the month before the new trial.

Yes, I said "without benefit of clergy", and for a reason. This is an era when that was a profoundly shocking thing to have done, and indeed that's a large part of why the case against Harriet is so convincing to the jury: she is obviously an Immoral Woman, and therefore capable of anything. This is particularly relevant given that Sayers had been in a similar situation, though of course that wasn't known until rather later. (That the man was immoral too is irrelevant, of course.) So when Lord Peter proposes marriage, Harriet must answer, among other things:

"[...] But, by the way, you're bearing in mind, aren't you, that I've had a lover?"

"Oh, yes. So have I, if it comes to that. In fact, several. It's the sort of thing that might happen to anybody. I can produce quite good testimonials. I'm told I make love rather nicely—only I'm at a disadvantage at the moment. One can't be very convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the door."

If Harriet didn't do it, then where did the arsenic come from? Suicide? Nobody seems to think it likely; Boyes thought too much of himself. Murder? But why – Boyes had neither money nor expectations – and how – at what must have been the fatal meal Boyes shared every dish with his cousin, and most of them were finished off by the servants afterwards? In fact, that cousin seems to have gone out of his way to make sure the meal was above suspicion…

There's not much whodunnit in this, given that all but one of the suspects is polished off fairly immediately; it's more of a why and how dunnit, as the principal suspect's motivation and method must be discovered and proved, not just to introduce reasonable doubt, but to leave Harriet untainted by scandal of the "she got away with it" flavour.

(And, of course, Wimsey wants Harriet to agree to marry him, but has to go to extreme pains not to link that with the work he's doing on her behalf, at least insofar as it's possible to separate the two: which it isn't, really, and they both know it, which is in part why they don't leap into each other's arms at the end of the book, though two other couples introduced in previous Wimsey novels have got together.)

"Curious," mused Wimsey, as he pattered along Bedford Row, "everybody is so remarkably helpful about this case. They cheerfully answer questions which one has no right to ask and burst into explanations in the most unnecessary manner."

Moreover, unlike Wimsey's first few outings, here he often has to sit back and let others work, when he'd much rather be doing things for himself. After a bit of poking around, including an introduction to some of Harriet's friends and a splendid snapshot of Bloomsbury life among the second-raters, he sends his man Bunter off in one direction, and two of the spinster ladies he employs (mostly to answer fraudulent advertisements and get the placers prosecuted) in others, then has to wait for them to report back and assemble their information into something like a case. And at the same time to try to keep up Harriet's spirits, as she waits in prison for the retrial.

And then there's a long divergence into how to fake spiritualism, which serves multiple purposes: it's amusing in itself, but it helps us share Wimsey's frustration, as this sudden slackening of pace mirrors his own inability to make any progress himself.

As far as the puzzle goes, all the clues for "how" are presented to the reader in a scrupulously fair manner. But this is much more of a character story than a puzzle story, and it's the better for it. Even a minor character:

[...] was a kitten-faced child with an inviting manner and a shrewd eye. She made no bones about accepting her client's invitation to dine and showed no surprise when he confidentially murmured that he had a little proposition to put before her. She put her plump elbows on the table, cocked her head at a coy angle, and prepared to sell her honour dear.

As the proposition unfolded itself, her manner underwent an alteration that was almost comical. Her eyes lost their round innocence, her very hair seemed to grow less fluffy, and her eyebrows puckered in genuine astonishment.

This is, to my mind, a masterpiece. There's only one logical flaw in the whole business, and rather than hope the reader won't notice Sayers admits the problem and has a character ask explicitly "why didn't he do X". She has the trick of writing a character cleverer and better-read than herself (don't try to do it as fast as he does, and don't be shy of spinning off references without filling in all the gaps for the reader; they can go and look up "the Seddon trial" or "Mithridates he died old" or "the Bravo case" for themselves), and the prose in general is sheerly lovely.

"Under her stage name of Cremorna Garden, she went from one disreputable triumph to another. And, mind you, she had brains—nothing of the Nell Gwyn business about her. She was the take-it-and-keep-it sort. She took everything—money, jewels, appartements meublés, horses, carriages, all the rest of it, and turned it into good consolidated funds. She was never prodigal of anything except her person, which she considered to be a sufficient return for all favours, and I daresay it was."

I'm reading Allingham and Marsh, and enjoying them; I've read all of Christie and enjoyed her, though I'm unlikely to reread any time soon. But for me Sayers is on a whole separate level, especially the Harriet books. This is what mystery stories should be.

I reread this for Past Offences' 1930 month. Followed by Five Red Herrings.

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  1. Posted by Kate at 11:17am on 17 September 2016

    Wonderful post. So glad to find another fan of the Vane and Wimsey novels, as I find them very involving. I'd definitely recommend the other three in the quartet. Is this your first Sayers' novel or have you read others? Murder Must Advertise is another favourite Sayers novel of mine.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:26am on 17 September 2016

    Kate, I've read all the Wimseys before (and loved all of them except Five Red Herrings), but I only started reviewing a couple of years ago. I do plan to catch up eventually.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:37am on 17 September 2016

    I recently re-read STRONG POISON, HAVE HIS CARCASS and BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON. Even went so far as to buy new copies, the old having worn through. I will even admit to having read the slightly dingy and lamentable 'authorised sequels' starting with THRONES, DOMINIONS, POWERS. And when I get too desperate for a fix, the Wimsey family throughout the ages appears in the background of my RPGs.

    For me it was THE NINE TAILORS that didn't work. I loved the revelation scene in FIVE RED HERRINGS when Wimsey gets to gloat about how everyone but him is wrong.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 10:56pm on 17 September 2016

    I've read Thrones, Dominations and The Attenbury Emeralds but the main impression of them I retain is that Walsh doesn't understand the relationship between the classes and particularly between man and servant. I don't know why I think this, since I've never lived with servants; I think it may be that when Sayers writes what critics call snobbery, it comes over as just the way things were, whereas when Walsh pastiches it it really feels like snobbery.

  5. Posted by Jason Half at 09:21pm on 18 September 2016

    Thank you for this lovely and lively post. I had read STRONG POISON some years ago, and your review both brings back fond memories and makes me want to revisit Sayers and the Wimsey books.

    Your placing of Harriet Vane's position -- both as the criminally accused and as Immoral Woman -- within the societal context of the story's era is useful and important. It also shows Sayers' cleverness to give the character two underdog characteristics with which to sympathize: the obvious one of a falsely accused prisoner in the dock and the more tricky one of a life potentially ruined through the reputation she might acquire thereafter.

    All of your quotes remind me that the best Golden Age mystery writers always gave something more than just a puzzle to be worked out; as literature, this is pretty engaging stuff! Thanks for the review --- Jason H

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:32pm on 18 September 2016

    Welcome, Jason!

    This is what I want out of a mystery: a combination of a challenging puzzle and intriguing people. Whisper it, but John Dickson Carr often leaves me cold; the puzzles may be good ones, but I don't care about the people. (And yet Freeman's Dr Thorndyke stories appeal far more.) At the other end of the scale, Simon Brett is all about the people and sometimes nearly forgets to include a puzzle at all.

    I talked about this a bit more back in June.

  7. Posted by Jason Half at 05:51pm on 19 September 2016

    I have the same reaction to John Dickson Carr, whose prose style feels baroque to me and whose characters, as you observe, often don't resonate... at least with this reader. I did like the Carter Dickson title THE JUDAS WINDOW, because it successfully uses a race-against-time plotline and a wrongfully accused suspect facing the death penalty to help the reader become emotionally engaged.

    I'm also a big fan of Gladys Mitchell, a writer who quite understandably frustrates many classic detective fiction fans. She may not always present a Christie-like fair-play and minutely clued puzzle, but her pre-1960 stories are full of life and detail, with memorable characters and admirable explorations of tone and approach. One book will feel like a Wilkie Collins tale of the supernatural, another a Wodehousian satire of mystery conventions. But like Sayers and Allingham and sometimes Ngaio Marsh and Nicholas Blake, a writer who manages to deliver characterization, atmosphere, and a unique voice along with the mystery is a welcome find indeed.

    Best wishes -- Jason

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 05:55pm on 19 September 2016

    I've heard good things about Mitchell elsewhere, and she's definitely going on my list. Thanks!

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