Strong Poison is the fifth novel by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957). It was first published in 1930 and I have read the previous in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. After the rather unhappy undercurrent that ran through The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, this novel is something of its opposite. There is a great deal of humor, fun, capers, and silliness. Frankly, it is the most fun of the Lord Peter mysteries so far.
Dorothy L. Sayers is a bit of an odd author for me to come to terms with. By that I mean it always seems that I am unsure where to place her works and/or situate her sphere as an author-audience circle. I have never met her and I have never met anyone who has. Based on nothing more than her various writings, I feel she would not have struck me as a nice person (yes, that is rather a vague phrase, too). I do not know that I would have liked her. However, I think she was a very intelligent person. You definitely want her at your supper party. I think she is an excellent writer – but her novels are never as good as they should be. Or as good as we want them to be. Most of the time, I feel like complaining that she should have written more (and by ‘more’ I mean much more) in the fiction realm than the detective novels. Sayers tended toward a version of agenda fiction, which does not always thrill me, but I can understand its usage. Further, and more than any other aspect of her writing, I get the overwhelming feeling with all of her novels that she is just doing a writing exercise. She is experimenting with the novel. In some atypical way, I want to call her an experimental writer. It is not overt and obvious like most “experimental fiction.” It is just a feeling that Sayers is trying something out or testing something.
Hey – she’s good; I think she could outwrite a heckuva lot of authors, vintage and contemporary.
It is because I get the sense of her being a great author that I want great books from her. Now, Strong Poison is an immense amount of fun and is quite interesting. Strong Poison is not a magnificent classic of literature, though. Without a doubt this is a four-star rating detective novel. The genre allows for it to have moments wherein its unrealistic, silly, and campy. Sometimes detective fiction authors (and this happens in science fiction as well) do it to themselves. They purposely, knowingly, make their works amusing and for a general readership. Unfortunately, that also immediately seems to make the literary critic feel these genres are somehow “lesser.” Its a sticky and ugly perspective that has tiny elements of truth on both sides. Is Sayers a hack? Is she just a large measure smarter than most hack writers and therefore able to convince us she’s not a hack? Personally, I think she is a great writer, but sadly she never wrote us that great book that would prove it indubitably to the galaxy.
Well, Strong Poison really has its genesis in Sayer’s own life, a writer named John Cournos (1881 – 1966) had some form of relationship with Sayers and she utilized this relationship in Strong Poison in the form of the character Philip Boyes. It is not a flattering character that she wrote, but it is, probably, realistic. This character dies and the main suspect is Harriet Vane. Lord Peter falls in love with Vane and the book is about Peter’s efforts to prove Vane’s innocence of Boyes’ demise. It is notable that the novel’s hero, Lord Peter, several times has some strong language about Boyes. I think there is more in this novel that is autobiographical than a reader would immediately think. Definitely scenes are pulled from Sayer’s own experiences.
The reader spends time attending the Vane trial and in following Peter around as he struggles to get evidence to clear Vane. A fact that happens, eventually, in all detective novels – the detective cannot do the job alone. Even with Lord Peter’s vast monetary resources and education he cannot solve this on his own. He has to pay and rely on the legwork and wits of people in his employ. And he does – and these people do come through for him – and it is quite an amusing tale as it plays out. But there is that nagging disappointment in the reader’s mind that realizes that Lord Peter cannot solve the crime.
Here in 2023 it is difficult to read these novels because our forensics technology has advanced so much. Plus, all of the “evidence” gotten in this story is gotten through nefarious and illegitimate means, anyway. None of this would be permissible in a court case. Lord Peter’s irregulars get the job done and these capers are really quite priceless and entertaining, but the realism is utterly lost. A reader in 2023 cannot help but notice this and be disappointed.
In this novel Lord Peter is very Lord Peter. It is like Sayers felt the heaviness and sorrow in the previous novel and gave Wimsey a shot of caffeine in this novel. Boy, his quips and banter are on extra high throughout.
“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely. – pg. 123, chapter 11.
But we do get to visit the Denver home or whatever it would be referred to as. We meet up with Gerald, Duke of Denver and some friends and family because it is Christmastime and they are gathered together. Peter navigates the uncomfortable, but oddly familiar scene of “conversation” with the elders in which they feel they can opine on any topic. He escapes to the stables at one point, running into his brother and brother’s friend.
“I wish nobody had ever invented tea. Ruins your nerves and spoils your appetite for dinner.”
“Same here,” said Wimsey, promptly. “I’m feelin’ rather exhausted with conversation. Let’s wander through the billiard-room and build our constitutions up before we face the barrage.” – pg. 130, chapter 12
Even if one finds Lord Peter annoying, the various scenarios that Sayers writes are always so relatable. Spoiled, annoying Lord Peter still resonates with the reader because he seems to always fit in and interact delightfully with people no matter the time or place or society.
Anyway, the case is broken by efforts of a loveable Miss Murchison who cracks the safe in her employer’s office. Of course, her gaining these locksmithing skills is due to Lord Peter introducing her to his acquaintance, Bill Rumm. Bill is a caricature of those reformed criminals who turn to any form of religion with zest and zeal, but still keep that crooked side available for use as needed. Rumm gives Murchison an instructional in how to open locks. Its a quite funny scene in the novel – one I think most readers would get a kick out of and would be perfectly amusing as a TV/film episode. Proud of his skills, reformed or not, Bill says:
“If?” grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt. ” ‘ Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks. There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing-gloves with a sick of boiled macaroni.” – pg. 145, chapter 13
There is another character that helps the case, Miss Climpson, but I would never dare to spoil those scenes. Absolutely riotous and hysterical scenes that come with a dose of criticism for the “new age spiritualist” shenanigans that Sayers must have come across here and there.
Anyway, I also want to share that the copy I read is a hardback Harper & Row edition. My copy is ex libris the US Naval Base Library in Charleston, SC. The last date stamped on the card in the back of the book (um, if you’re too young to know about this……. Wikipedia might help?) is 15 FEB 1994. From other markings, the book was acquired by the Naval Station for $4.95 in October of 1969.
I am very glad that I read this novel, it has some wonderfully amusing scenes in it and it has some unique problems for the detective to overcome about the crime itself. In many ways, it is also somewhat of a character study, a passing study of various subcultures in society, and a bit of trickery and fun. Overall, vintage mystery fans need to read it. Other readers may enjoy it, but it has its flaws and does not really age well in terms of actual crime-solving. Still, those folks who can stand Lord Peter’s piffle will appreciate the time spent with him and his irregulars.