Strong Poison is the fifth book to feature Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic private sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any of the earlier novels for this book can stand on its own. It’s a wonderful introduction to Wimsey and his methods which seem to involve a lot of thinking and casual conversations with witnesses and potential perpetrators. He has one ace up his sleeve – the group of women known as ‘The Cattery’, members of a fictitious typing bureau who are deployed to infiltrate houses and offices and nose about on his behalf.
These were spinsters with small fixed incomes or o comes at all, widows without family; women deserted by peripatetic husbands and living on a restricted alimony, who previous to their engagement ….had had no resources but bridge and boarding house gossip.
It’s a brilliant device because it gives scope for some wonderful characterisations and amusing episodes. In Strong Poison we benefit from two highly amusing scenes in which one woman takes part in a seance and pretends to be a medium and another where a man takes lessons from a master thief on how to pick locks.
The plot revolves Harriet Vane who is on trial for the murder by arsenic powder of her former lover. Whimsy attends the trial and is convinced that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder but can he prove this in time to save her from the gallows? He’s up against it since the police are equally convinced they have the right culprit and even the judge at her trial seems to be against her. Finding the real poisoner isn’t just a case of exerting true justice – Wimsey has another motivation for solving the mystery – he has decided he wants to marry Harriet even though all he knows about her is what was revealed at the trial. She understandably demures at this proposal since she knows even less about him, but Wimsey is not a man to take no for an answer.
The plot is reasonably straight forward – surprisingly I guessed who the culprit was long before the revelation (as I suspect many other readers will). Less evident than the answer to the question whodunnit? was the answer to the question of how the murder was accomplished. That one kept me perplexed right to the end.
The plot is less important than the characters and the setting however. This is novel dating from the 1930s, an era often labelled as the “golden age of crime” because it also saw the rise of two authors who became synonymous with crime fiction: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. It’s an era wonderfully evoked by Sayers who of course was writing about her contemporary world. Equally masterful is her creation of Lord Wimsey. One moment you’re thinking that despite his elegant clothes and foppish language he is a bit of an idiot and the next thinking how astute a judge of character he is. A most unusual private eye .
All together an entertaining novel that did the job perfectly when I needed an antidote so some of my darker reading materials. I know where to turn when I’m next in that mood.
The Book: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers was published in 1930. According to Wikipedia the relationship between Harriet and her lover was inspired by Sayers’ own fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.
My edition: Published by Hodder and Stoughton’s New English Library. It has an introduction by Elizabeth George which pays tribute to Sayers’ ability to conjure up compelling characters.
Why I read this: it was in a second hand book shop and in excellent condition so of course I had to buy it but then left it lingering on the shelf for a while. I had just read Little Women and after so much saccharine I needed a complete change of pace .