Given Harriet Vane's importance in the later Wimsey books, I was surprised to see her have such a small role in Strong Poison, although this is actually perfectly natural given that she's stuck in prison. She appears in only a couple of chapters and yet Sayers is skilful both at drawing her as a strong character in her own right - unconventional, witty, intelligent, very matter-of-fact and with her own moral code - and also at showing exactly why it is that Wimsey has fallen in love with her at first sight.
Wimsey himself was a revelation. I hadn't appreciated how much of a sense of humour he had and in fact, he spends a lot of time mocking himself, what he looks like and his own character - famously describing himself as having a "funny face". He's obviously intelligent, urbane, rich, powerful and famous and yet at no point does he ever come across as unlikeable or arrogant. There's also something quite romantic about the way in which he's convinced that he will eventually marry Vane, even though she has already rejected his proposal and he has rejected her counterproposal of just living in sin. The book ends with the two going their separate ways, but you just know that they'll end up together one day.
A second revelation was how small a part Wimsey actually plays in the actual detecting. There's no doubt that he's the intuition directing the operation, but when it comes to actually ferreting out information, Sayers uses characters such as his loyal batman Bunter, Miss Climpson (who runs the Cattery) and Miss Murchison (a member of the Cattery sent under cover). I found this fascinating - not least because modern crime novelists will often restrict their POVs to one or two (those usually being the main characters). I found that this approach really opened up the novel and kept it entertaining and I also enjoyed the fact that Sayers uses the jduge's summing up at the start of the book to convey the salient backstory and then an epistlery style to flesh out more background details as the book goes along.
The story itself is fascinating - firstly because of the way Sayers keeps the tension going between 3 possibilities - (a) Vane killed her lover; (b) her lover committed suicide because of her rejection of him, and (c) someone else killed him. Obviously, it couldn't have been Vane, and Sayers has a lot of fun keeping you on the path of (b), only gradually dripping in the information that leads you to suspect it could have been (c). It's an approach that's skilfully handled and keeps you guessing because once she's shown you who must have done it, she adds another element of suspense as you try to work out how it was done (and I'm not going to spoil that for you because it's the best part).
Much of the slang and dialogue in the book will seem very dated to modern readers, but I think that it adds to the charm and authenticity of the story.
on 9 January 2004
In public life, Dorothy L. Sayers was a scholar, writer, and woman of impeccable morals. In private life, however, she had a torrid love affair and bore a child out of wedlock. In her literature, Sayers expressed the schism between these aspects of her personality via the character of Harriet Vane, who makes her first appearance in the Lord Peter series in STRONG POISON as a fallen woman on trial for her life.
Published in 1930, the novel opens with Harriet Vane in the dock, listening as the judge presiding over trial sums up against her. She is a writer of mildly popular mysteries who has had a liaison with Philip Boyes, a rather pretentious author better know to critics than to the public. Their acrimonious separation is quickly followed by Boyes' death from arsenic--and it seems that Harriet, and Harriet only, had both motive and opportunity.
But the judge reckons without juror Miss Climpson, employee of the celebrated Lord Peter Wimsey, who derails what would seem an open and shut case--and gives Lord Peter the opportunity to unravel the crime. And, not incidentally, to fall in love with the accused. With an infamous actress of the Victorian age lurking in the background and a sizable inheritance on the line, Wimsey rushes to sort out the mystery and save the woman he loves before the case can be retried.
STRONG POISON is not really among Sayer's greatest novels, which combine a unique literary style, memorable characters, and complex plots to remarkable effect. The opening description of the trial, with its detailed account of the judge's comments, feels excessive; the solution to the crime is tricksy and relies heavily on coincidence; and Harriet Vane stands out less effectively than such supporting characters as Miss Climpson. Nonetheless, it has its charms, most particularly in Sayers' witty and highly literate style and the continued evolution of the characters she had previously created.
Most particularly, STRONG POISON sets the stage for two novels in which Harriet Vane will become one of the most memorable characters in the golden age of the English mystery: GAUDY NIGHT and BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, both of which are regarded as high-water marks in the genre. Sayers wrote several memorable novels in which Harriet Vane does not appear at all, most notably the famous MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, but her development of the character is a remarkable process to behold, and fans will enjoy watching the process. Enjoyable, but recommended more to established Sayers readers than first time visitors.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
A lot of women want to poison their ex-boyfriends. Only a few actually do it.
But the suspicion is enough to land a woman in the dock in "Strong Poison," the first of a string of mysteries about eccentric detective Lord Peter Wimsey and his romantic interest, crime writer/murder suspect Harriet Vane. While Peter's feelings for Harriet spring up rather suddenly, this seemingly airtight mystery is a solid race against time to discover the poisoner, with few clues about who may have done the deed -- and a lot of clues about who didn't.
Lord Peter Wimsey becomes interested in the trial of Harriet Vane, a mystery writer who lived with her boyfriend until he proposed marriage (it had all been a test). Six months later, after a brief visit, her ex dropped dead of arsenic -- and all the evidence points straight at Harriet. But Peter is sure that Harriet didn't do the crime -- and he's fallen in love -- and so becomes determined to break this watertight case against her.
And so he turns his attention to suicide, since there was plenty of motive for that. But the most promising lead turns out to be the dead man's cousin, a successful lawyer whose motives and opportunity remain unknown -- as the court tells us, the only food that the deceased ate was also eaten by the suspect. But the brilliant Wimsey knows he can find the answer, before Harriet's retrial.
"Strong Poison" probably had a special signficance for Dorothy Sayers. First, it introduced her alter-ego, Harriet. Secondly, some of the events that happened to Harriet -- living with a boyfriend, the "test" -- really happened in real life, although presumably Sayers didn't come under suspicion of having murdered her ex.
The murder itself is very intriguing, if very slow-moving and roundabout. The case against Harriet is practically foolproof, so it's intriguing to see Wimsey carefully pulling the chinks out of it, and exposing another motive for the dead man's death. But they include some funny (if too brief) moments, like Peter having tea with a hilarious lesbian couple ("Philip Boyes was always determined to be a victim, and it was very irritating of him to succeed in the end"), or the fake seance.
Not to mention some great dialogue ("Why not slap the manly thorax and say, `Peter, my dear old mangel-wurzel, I have decided to dig myself into the old family trench and be a brother to you'?"), including Sayers' needling at double standards for women ("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").
Sayers does stumble by having Wimsey instantly fall for her avatar, to the point where he asks her seriously to marry him at their first meeting. But the two characters mesh well -- he's witty, brainy and very unorthodox, while she's a "fallen woman" with brains and a prickly, clever personality. And there's a slew of lovable side characters -- steadfast and clever Miss Climpson, the ever-faithful Bunter, the increasingly lovesick Parker, and the lovably bickering couple Eiluned and Sylvia.
"Strong Poison" proceeds rather slowly, but Sayers does a solid job of dissecting a seemingly foolproof case -- and introduces her less than Mary-Suish avatar at the same time.
Lord Peter Wimsey, the aristocratic detective, and his mother are attending the trial of Harriet Vane for the murder of her lover. Wimsey falls in love with Vane at first sight, and determines to prove her innocence. With much assistance from the admirable Miss Climpson, he uncovers a nasty little plot. Whether he gets the girl or not remains to be seen.
Though generally I am a fan of Dorothy L Sayers, I have to make the blasphemous statement that I find the relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey terminally annoying. From Peter's instant proposal of marriage to the events at the end of Gaudy Night, the whole business is less like a relationship (whether amorous or purely platonic) than like an intellectual virgin's imagining of what a relationship might be like.
Unsurprisingly, then, I found parts of this book annoying beyond telling. Fortunately Ms Vane is in custody for much of the time, and so I am left to enjoy what does turn out to be rather a good chase. I adore Miss Climpson; like an urban guerilla version of Miss Marple, she's a complete charicature of what an unmarried woman of her class would have been, but done so sympathetically, she's glorious. And also the light relief and the saving grace for this book.
Essential in the Wimsey canon for being the first meeting with Harriet, this is nonetheless not the book to start with.
Few would argue with the contention that no better writer has ever tried her hand at writing detective fiction than Dorothy L Sayers. I happen to like good writing, and I don't mind if it features more strongly than the puzzle component in a mystery novel.
"Strong Poison" abounds in wit, charm, characterization, and literary excellence. This is the one that begins with two whole chapters of a judge's summing up. On trial is Harriet Vane, accused of killing her lover by administering arsenic. All believe she is guilty except one jury member, Miss Murchison, who prevents the jury from bringing in a "guilty" verdict, and someone attending the trial, Lord Peter Wimsey, who determines to prove Harriet's innocence and make her his wife.
Dorothy L Sayers then makes little pretence at hiding the identity of the killer. Instead she unfolds a fascinating investigation into how the crime was committed and how Lord Peter and one or two helpers collected the evidence to convict.
Neither as long nor as long-winded as some of Miss Sayers' later detective fiction, this one offers rich and pure pleasure all the way. The additional luxury of hearing it read by Ian Carmichael in audio book form is well worth investigating.
In Strong Poison, written in 1930, Lord Peter Wimsey first meets Harriet Vane, a writer of detective stories. At this point, the Wimsey novels enter their richest and final phase. Harriet Vane is complex, intelligent, seared by her life experiences and definitely not into trusting me. Lord Peter dalls instantly in love with her and an element of emotional and sexual tension enlivens the books as never before.
The title of this novel is literary reference. In the ballad of Lord Randall, it is used of someone who poisoned her lover.
Harriet stands accused of murdering her lover, Phillip Boyes, also a novelist. He was a ‘free-thinker’ and, claiming to disapprove of marriage, he persuaded Harriet to live with him, although it went against her principles and her good judgement. When, later, he proposed marriage, Harriet felt she had been duped by him into giving up her good name and angrily finished their relationship.
Boyes suffered from bouts of gastric illness. Harriet bought several poisons under assumed names, (which does look suspicious!) to test elements of the plot point of her latest novel. Feeling better after a holiday, Boyes had a meal with Norman Urquhart, his cousin, then visited Harriet. During the night, he was dreadfully ill and died in agony four days later. The post-mortem revealed that Boyes had been poisoned with arsenic. He and his cousin had easten the same food so it seemed that the poison must have been in the cup of coffee that Harriet gave him. She is tried for murder. Wimsey visits Harriet in prison, believing her innocent, and promises to solve the mystery and then marry her. ..
Dorothy Sayers writes elegant, witty prose and creates fascinating characters. She (in my opinion) is the greatest of the Big Four women writers of the classic period of detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. She wrote intelligent, erudite books and also had a keen sense of humour which is very much displayed in this book. Much of the wit is placed in Lord Peter’s mouth – he is a master of self-deprecating, teasing wit, sometimes affectionate and sometimes rather bitter. Without it, he might come across as a pompous individual, especially as he can just do everything so flippin’ well. Despite his foppish appearance, he is a brave and resourceful man, a war hero; and despite his aristocratic credentials and polished manners, he is a friend of working class people and kind to all. Dorothy Sayers described him as a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, but (I suspect) she was glossing over the fact that he is her ideal man and pretty damned sexy.
This, like Sayers’ other books, is one to be read over and over, savouring the humour and the beautiful turn of phrase. The morality and the social conventions are of their time, of course, and none the worse for that. The book reflects a more cultured time, perhaps because ‘culture’ was largely the province of the wealthy, educated and privileged, with the mass of men and women unable to participate in it. I love to read about it and learn more about its culture. It is something to feed on and learn from, somehow.
Harriet appears in the book only now and then and Peter does not do much of the detecting at first hand, yet they and their budding relationship are undoubtedly the focus of the book. Miss Climpson of ‘the Cattery’ helps Peter. She is a rich creation who appears in more than one of the books, the spinster lady with no chance of finding a husband after the death of so many men in World War 1.
There are some brilliant details in the book, just passing thoughts of Harriet or Peter that catch the attention and make me think. They are what make it worthwhile to read and re-read the book and are, perhaps, what make me give the book five stars.
on 7 July 2009
Other people have written much more thorough reviews than this one about this novel, but I enjoyed this story so much that I wanted to praise it. It is the first Sayers I have read and having read quite a bit of detective fiction I do think it is very special and stands out. I think this is due, not only to a very clever mystery but also the excellent characterisation of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Such believable and real characters. I am a fan of Agatha Christie's work and these two writers are often compared but their styles are very different. This is easily as good as the best of Christie, and I think the very authentic romantic element of the plot would appeal to those who don't normally read mysteries.
Personally I have always been an Agatha the Christie fan. My first encounter with Dorothy L. Sayers was the Mobile Mystery Theater series showing on PBS.
Naturally the TV media cannot fill in all the details that you would pick up from reading the book. So I read the book. This added more depth to the story, but now I appreciate Dorothy L. Sayers more than Agatha Christie. But Dorothy not only fleshes her characters out better but her side trips into philosophy and psychology make the story that much more interesting. And just when you say what is the relevance to this conversation it is wrapped up in the final solution.
We are in luck as they still make the CD of "Strong Poison" The reader Is Ian Carmichael the first TV Lord Peter Wimsey. It makes a good compliment to the book.
This is the first of a fourth book series. The story is complete and can be used as a stand-alone story.
The notorious Harriet Vane is on trial for poisoning her previous live in lover. Naturally Lord Peter Wimsey falling in love with her, is determined that she is innocent and will prove this. To save her repartition he must fined the real culprit (if there is one), because if Harriet gets off on a technicality, she will always be under suspicion.
This is the book which introduces Harriet Vane into Peter Wimsey's life and heart. He goes to watch her trial and is convinced she is innocent of poisoning her lover. Fortunately Miss Climpson - a strong minded spinster of a certain age and a business associate of Peter Wimsey's - is on the jury and is sure Harriet is innocent. This is in the days before a majority verdict was acceptable. The jury's inability to make a decision forces a retrial and gives Wimsey time to set to work to try and prove that someone else committed the crime.
Even though I have read this book several times over many years I still notice things I hadn't noticed before every time I read it. The book is well written the characters are interesting and believable and the plot is complex and fascinating. There are enough alternative suspects to keep the reader guessing and the solution is intriguing.
Once you have read this book you need to read 'Have His Carcase' which is the next book featuring Harriet Vane followed by 'Gaudy Night' in order to watch the development of Harriet and Peter's relationship.
on 15 July 2009
This is my first review and I am writing it as I recently suggested it as next month's choice for a barristers' chambers bookclub. I therefore want to get my justification in first! The decision was that we try a detective story for a change. Sayers was generally thought to be of greater literary worth than most of "The Golden Age", certainly than Christie. The first suggestion was "The Nine Tailors" which is generally thought to be one of the greatest novels of the genre. I had to disagree as, although I loved these books when I first read them, I have found Peter Wimsey to be increasingly irritating and hardly more so than in "T9T". "Strong Poison" has an excellent plot (more why- and how- rather than who-dunnit), a superb opening device (the telling of the "murder" by the judge in his summing-up), the race against time before the re-trial, two wonderful sleuth characters in Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison and refreshingly little of Peter Wimsey and what there is is less irritating than usual. It is also tightly written without the sprawl of the following "Have His Carcase" and "Gaudy Night". In short, one of the best of its kind.