Dorothy L. Sayers: Strong Poison

Strong Poison
Dorothy L. Sayers
First published in the UK 1930, Victor Gollancz Ltd
This edition 2003, New English Library
ISBN: 9780450013928
304 pages
Score 5/5

‘There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.’
‘The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in a stuffy court but he showed no signs of fatigue.’

What a fantastic opening to a book.

I rattled through the opening chapter, and carried on rattling through until the conclusion. After tackling some slower but more worthy reads recently it was good to encounter a book that was essentially an entertainment.

Strong Poison is well known for being the first step towards serial detectives possessing private lives (a road which has brought us to the soap/crime novels of Camilla Lackberg), and introduces Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane.

Vane, a crime novelist, is on trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. On the face of the available evidence, plus her undoubted expertise in the administration of arsenic, she is guilty, and only Lord Peter Wimsey and his ally Miss Climpson believe otherwise. It soon becomes clear that Wimsey has fallen for Vane in a big way, and there are some nicely played scenes between the two of them in an interview room in Holloway, in which he seems very gauche for a man of the world, and she, despite her incarceration, has the upper hand.

Outside Holloway, Wimsey wastes little time in starting to track down the real killer. One curiosity about Strong Poison is that there is little doubt about the identity of the murderer. He emerges early on from the very small field of possible suspects. Following this, the bulk of the book concerns Wimsey’s efforts to establish a credible motive for the murder of Boyes.

In this, Wimsey is ably supported by a strong cast of Watsons. His friend Inspector Parker (who in this book proposes to Wimsey’s sister Mary) heads up the police side of the investigation. Unofficial help comes from Wimsey’s ‘Cattery’, an organisation of spinsters, widows, deserted women, and the occasional Bright Young Thing, which he commissions to trap blackmailers and confidence men. The frequently italicised Miss Climpson, leader of the Cattery, does some simply brilliant undercover sleuthing in her own right, but also finds an able assistant in Miss Murchison. Finally, Wimsey’s manservant is present for some typically Jeeves-and-Wooster scenes (apparently Sayers enjoyed pastiche, and she does name-check Jeeves at one point).

‘”Bunter!”
“My lord?”
“Do you feel at your brightest and most truly fascinating? Does a livelier iris, winter weather notwithstanding, shine upon the burnished Bunter? Have you got that sort of conquering feeling, that Don Juan touch, so to speak?”
“I am always happy,” replied Bunter, “to exert myself to the best of my capacity in your lordship’s service.”‘

The much shorter final section of the novel concerns the search for physical evidence of the murder. To be honest, this is rather too conveniently found, but there is an enjoyable little demonstration of forensic science, and an interesting solution which will seem familiar (although possibly this was its first outing in fiction).

Strong Poison is eminently readable and I’d recommend as an introduction to Sayers. Wimsey, by the way, perhaps because this case means so much to him, is less annoying than usual.

A last point: Maxine of Petrona mentioned Sayers’ reputation for antisemitism in my review of Murder Must Advertise. With that in mind, I read the passages in which Wimsey’s (non-Jewish) friend Freddy discusses his forthcoming marriage to a Jewish girl with some discomfort. It’s strong stuff, but it’s in Freddy’s voice, not the author’s. And ultimately, Freddy is marrying a Jewish girl, which must be a step in the right direction. I gather the jury is still out on the question of Sayers’ antisemitism, but I wouldn’t convict her on the evidence of Strong Poison.

Final destination: Back to the library

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Dorothy L. Sayers: Strong Poison

  1. RIch – You’ve highlighted a few reasons for which I like this book so much. I really do like Miss Climpson, Joan Murchison and of course the very terrific Mervyn Bunter. I think you’re also quite right that Wimsey’s personal interest in this case adds to the persona he has in this novel. A very nice review here!

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  2. Maxine says:

    Thanks for reminding me of how much I enjoyed this book. And thanks for following up about the antisemetism. There was a lot of that kind of thing in books written at that time.

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  3. I loved the careful invesigating in this book, the search for the missing white powder which turns out to be a red herring, the slow uncovering of how exactly the killer did it. And yes, the Wimsey in this one is almost unrecognizable from the idiot in other books. Though isn’t there a rather weird bit in which we see his thoughts about how he envisages married life with Harriet – something like ‘ … and then they’d go to bed and that would be very jolly too’. I can remember finding that an embarrassing read as a teenager!

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  4. Sarah says:

    Interesting review Rich. I didn’t know about the anti-semitism angle but I know some of Agatha Christie’s language seems quite old fashioned these days, It’s interesting that you read this book knowing about the debate. This is my favourite book featuring Wimsey/Harriet Vane.

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