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Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

strongpoisonStrong 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.

Footnotes

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 .

 

The landmark week

This has been a week of landmarks, mostly small but still notable and one big one….

  • I got to the end of Little Women. It took me nigh on three weeks to read this dratted book. I loved the
    character of Jo March when I was young – she is the element of the book that has stayed with me for years and it seems I am not alone in finding her the most interesting of the four March sisters. But I had forgotten how preachy this novel is strongpoisonwith its initial device of making the sisters follow the course of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and then the wise homilies of the saintly Marmee inserted every few pages.  If it were not a required text for my children’s literature course – and there is an essay due on it – I would have abandoned it long before the first book was completed. By way of an antidote I started to read one of the series of detective stories from the 1930s by  Dorothy L. Sayers which feature the aristocratic private investigator Lord Peter Whimsey. Strong Poison is the fifth in the series and sees Whimsey try to save a woman from the hangman. It’s a welcome light relief after Alcott but not too frothy.

 

  • My official TBR has now passed the 200 mark. Despite good intentions at the start of the year and some concentrated effort to read what I already possess, it’s higher now than it was in January. I could winge and moan but its actually a pleasure to know I have books to suit every mood right at my fingertips (providing I can find the book without the piles tumbling over).  Book number 200 is The Conservationist by the South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer who received the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Conservationist was joint winner of the  Booker Prize in 1974 (sharing the prize with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). I knew that her writing dealt extensively  with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid. What I didn’t know was that she gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.
  • Inspired by another blogger – I think it was Lisa at ANZlovers –  I have finally started to make Goodreads work more effectively for me at keeping a list of books I want to read. I had these in so many formats and places beforehand that it was impossible to keep track. I had links to reviews, emails, Evernote notes. But few of them actually said where i had learned about the book. Now I have a wishlist in Goodreads and have started to post comments to track where I heard about the book or who recommended it. Bliss….
  • I know in some homes the word Christmas is banned until December 1 and that was the case with me for years but this year its starting earlier than planned because of a health issue. I’ve just launched a 12 days of Christmas game  and giveaway which starts on December 1 – its the first time I’ve ever done this on my blog. Hope it works. Also hoping lots of people join in…..
  • And finally, the biggest landmark of them all. I finished my course of chemotherapy. I’ve been fortunate and the side effects haven’t been too debilitating but still its good to know from the tests that it had the desired effect in halting the progress. I have a lot more of the mountain to climb before my health is back on track but I’m now beyond base camp. Next milestone is radiotherapy which begins on Nov 28. Cause for celebration I think don’t you?
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