Posted in: AztecLady Reviews
Tags:Dorothy L. Sayers
Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers
Even though I’ve had a number of Ms Sayers’ books in my TBR mountain for a while now, this novel is the first of her books that I’ve read. And now that I have, I’ll be sure to remedy the lack in my reading post haste! Strong Poison is actually the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey book published.
Lord Peter is the youngest sibling of the current Duke Denver, and he has developed a few unusual habits as he grows older. He collects first editions and books printed before 1501, and spends the rest of his spare time investigating (and solving) crimes. Most often, Lord Peter works with the police, in the person of his close friend Chief-Inspector Charles Parker, but in this case he has to prove the police made a terrible mistake.
The (very short) back cover blurb gives us the bare bones of the story:
Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner described in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent—as determined as he was to make her his wife.
The novel starts, perhaps a bit slowly for some readers, with a judge giving the jury his summation of the evidence in the trial of Ms Harriet Vane for the murder of one Philip Boyes. If the language weren’t enough of an indication of the time during which this novel was written, the tone of the summation would make it clear. The year is 1929, and Harriet Vane is on trial as much on circumstantial evidence as she is on moral grounds—after all, for over a year she lived with the deceased as a married couple without the benefit of a ceremony. Egads, the horror of it all.
The thing is that, regardless of the judge’s personal bias, the chain of evidence is pretty much airtight. The accused had the opportunity, an apparent motive, and at one point in time had the actual means (arsenic) to commit the murder. Fortunately, by the merest of margins, the deliberations end with a hung jury, or this would have been a rather short—and depressing—story.
And here is where the story actually picks up. In short order we are introduced to a number of secondary characters who will play roles of varying degrees of importance in the resolution of the story. Some of these characters, such as Miss Climpson, Chief-Inspector Parker, the Dowager Duchess Denver, and a few others, are apparently recurring characters. Their introduction in this novel, however, was done clearly enough for me to follow along with minimal confusion over their relationship with Lord Peter—not just in matters of degree but in tone.
On the other hand, and having read all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (most of them dozens of times), as well as a good number of others, I will confess to having figured out both the method of poisoning and the identity of the murderer relatively early on—even though there was a material and apparently insurmountable difficulty which seemed to disprove my conclusion. Then there was the matter of motive—or lack thereof.
Fortunately for Miss Vane, Lord Peter is convinced of her innocence, which means that he won’t let such trivia stop him from proving it. Through a series of seemingly unrelated conversations and events, Lord Peter bumbles his way about until he stumbles on a few things that seem to fit a little too well—and others that don’t seem to fit at all. The sum of which, of course, translate into a perfectly reasonable explanation and the capture of the guilty party—who is indeed not Miss Vane.
What makes this book such a delight is not the mystery—though this is enjoyable in its own right—but the characters and the language—both that used during dialogue and in the narrative. There is an old fashioned beauty to it that captivated me, even though it’s probably not to everyone’s taste.
I hadn’t realized that Lord Peter could be so incredibly funny, but he is. The way he speaks and behaves would seem to fit more an old, eccentric man twice his age than a member of the peerage with a Duke for a brother. From his internal dialogue to his interactions with the rest of the cast of characters, there is something truly endearing in the way his mind seems to flit about aimlessly. However, much as his own mother’s speech, there is a keen and perceptive intelligence behind the convoluted and often confusing references.
The secondary characters are just as engaging—Bill, the safe cracker turned locksmith and preacher. Bunter, the butler/valet/man of all trades, who knows more about anything and everything than even Lord Peter himself. Chief-Inspector Parker, friend and colleague. Miss Climpson, the middle-aged spinster. Miss Murchison, the secretary-cum-burglar.
This one is an 8 out of 10—and first of many, I’m sure.