Top positive review
29 people found this helpful
on 20 June 2007
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.