The Golden Age of Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison

London, 1929

Miss Harriet Vane is on trial for murder.

It's a most scandalous case. The victim, Philip Boyes, was not only an author who advocated free love and anarchy—he was the accused murderer's lover for more than a year. But following a nasty split, Boyes started falling ill, and always after a chance encounter with Miss Vane. Until one evening in May, when a bad stomachache turned fatal, it was revealed that it was no gastritis that had afflicted Boyes.

It was arsenic.

The police, the public, and the court all concur that Miss Vane is guilty. She's a mystery writer well versed in murder, and she has already confessed to buying more than enough arsenic to kill a man; as research for her newest novel, she claims, but nobody believes that.

Except Lord Peter Wimsey.

Wimsey, the gentleman criminologist, is convinced that the clever author is being framed. More than that, he's fallen in love with her from afar and is determined to not only clear her name and save her from the gallows, but to make her his wife.

What follows is a convoluted case of squandered inheritances, fake séances, evangelical safecrackers, wild Bohemians, an agency of lady spies masquerading as secretaries, a most ingenious means of poisoning, and a very unusual courtship full of witty repartee.

Already madly in love with the hopeless Harriet, Peter's first actual conversation with her is indicative of all of their exchanges to come:

“Oh, by the way—I don't positively repel you or anything like that, do I? Because, if I do, I'll take my name off the waiting-list at once.”

“No,” said Harriet Vane, kindly and a little sadly. “No, you don't repel me.”

“I don't remind you of white slugs or make you go goose-flesh all over?”

“Certainly not.”

“I'm glad of that. Any minor alterations, like parting the old mane, or growing a tooth-brush, or cashiering the eyeglass, you know, I should be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas.”

“Don't,” said Miss Vane, “please don't alter yourself in any particular.”

“You really mean that?” Wimsey flushed a little. “…Only don't hesitate to say if you think you couldn't stick it at any price. I'm not trying to blackmail you into matrimony, you know. I mean, I should investigate this for the fun of the thing, whatever happened, don't you see.”

“It's very good of you—”

“No, no, not at all. It's my hobby. Not proposing to people, I don't mean, but investigating things. Well, cheery-frightfully-ho and all that. And I'll call again if I may.“

”I will give the footman orders to admit you,“ said the prisoner gravely; ”you will always find me at home.“

Dorothy L. Sayers is known as ”The Mistress of the Golden Age Mystery“ for good reason. Her novels are clever and beautifully written, full of scholastic allusions—Sayers was one of the first women to obtain a degree from Oxford, and she gave the world a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy that is still widely read today—and plenty of commentary on contemporary global events with many of her characters directly affected by the Great War (and aware of the shadow of the next).

Her best loved creation, the sophisticated sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, may not be quite the household name Sherlock Holmes is, but he's an equally vivid and colorful character. With his fair hair, trademark monocle, sharp suits, sleek Lagonda, and slightly effeminate mannerisms, he's the classic picture of British nobility.

Along with his title and his buckets of money, Lord Peter has a faithful manservant and cohort in crime-solving, the dryly observant Bunter, who could very well be Jeeves's long-lost brother. The relationship between the pair is not merely that of a fond employer and a devoted servant. Bunter served under Peter in the Great War, and their bond is one of unshakeable brotherhood that leads to some rather touching moments throughout the series.

But, by far my favorite thing about this gentleman sleuth is his way with words. Peter could talk circles around a flock of parrots, throwing so many literary references and dashes of Latin into his conversations that it pays to have Google on hand to clarify things. ”If anybody does marry you, Peter, it'll be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” says Harriet Vane on more than one occasion.

Strong Poison is the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, but it's the first I tend to recommend to people. Mainly because this is the novel that introduces the sharp Harriet Vane, and I greatly prefer the dynamic of Peter/Harriet to any of his standalone outings.

And for those who may be intimidated by such a literary mystery, the BBC released a trio of superb adaptations in 1987. The casting is all-around spot-on. Harriet Walter usually plays shrewish characters in a most convincing fashion, but here, she's wonderfully sympathetic as Miss Vane, and Edward Petherbridge—with his nasal cadence and aristocratic bearing—is a near note-perfect Lord Peter.

The pair has great chemistry, considering they only share a handful of scenes together in this first adaptation. I particularly love the following exchange in the prison:

HARRIET: You still going to marry me?

PETER: Of course.

HARRIET: Why? What's so fascinating about me, Peter? Is it a dark side about you, something about a murderess that draws you? Excites you?

PETER: It can't be that, because I know you're not a murderess.

HARRIET: Well, what is it then? You are bearing in mind, aren't you, that I've had a lover?

PETER: Oh yes. So have I. Several, in fact. It's the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. I can, uh, produce quite good testimonials. I've been told I make love rather nicely. Though I am at a bit of a disadvantage at the moment. One can't be too convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the window.

The mystery itself is a solid one. Not action packed, perhaps, but the whodunit-and-how reveal is quite fun, and the ending is open enough to encourage picking up the following Lord Peter/Harriet adventure as quickly as possible. After all of that verbal foreplay, you can't just watch Harriet walk out of the courthouse while Peter adjusts his monocle. You simply have to see what comes next.

 


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

Comments

  1. Connor

    always a pleasure to read one of your articles–all the more so when you nod at one of my favorite novels. Harriet and Lord Peter have been longstanding favorites of mine, although I read their story all out of order (I somehow ended up with Have His Carcase before Strong Poison). Their contrasting elements are so wonderful to see, and I’m with you: the Peter/Harriet aspect makes the books sharper, to me, than his stand alone novels.

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