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