Strong Poison

Dorothy L Sayers

Dorothy Sayers’ work has been quite influential in the world of crime fiction, and her Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters. This is the 6th book in the Wimsey series.

 

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed 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.

SHer claim is that she bought the arsenic to do research for her forthcoming novel, but of course, many people don’t believe her. Finally, there’s the evidence of what Philip Boyes ate and drank on the day of the murder. That day, he had dinner with his cousin, Norman Urquhart, and afterwards went to visit Harriet with the goal of patching things up between them. When he arrived at Harriet’s home, she gave him a cup of coffee. That coffee was the only thing that Phillip Boyes had that no-one else had.

Despite all of this evidence, one member of the jury, Miss Climpson, is not convinced of Harriet Vane’s guilt. Her refusal to convict leaves the jury hopelessly deadlocked. The judge has no choice but to release the jury and schedule a new trial. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, doesn’t think Harriet Vane is guilty, either, and determines to clear her name. It’s not just that he thinks she’s innocent, either; Lord Peter has fallen in love with Harriet. So he sets out to discover what really happened to Philip Boyes. With help from Miss Climpson, who owns a typewriting bureau, Mervyn Bunter, his valet, and his friend Chief Inspector Charles Parker, Wimsey looks into the death of Philip Boyes.

One of the elements that runs through this novel is the sexism of the era in which Sayers wrote. For example, we learn early in the novel that Philip Boyes and Harriet Vane were living together without being married. In fact, that’s a key part of the reason that Harriet was angry with Philip. Philip’s reputation doesn’t suffer at all. He’s considered a ‘free spirit” who needed to be creative and couldn’t be expected to settle down. On the other hand, Harriet is regarded as notorious for having lived with a man without marriage. It’s one reason for which many people are suspicious of her (i.e. “Any woman who would live with a man and not be married to him can’t be that trustworthy and deserves what she gets”).

Sayers is one of the Queens of the Golden Age and deserves to be revisited. 

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

About Dorothy L Sayers:

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a renowned British author, translator, student of classical and modern languages, and Christian humanist.

Best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.

The novel begins at the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane. She’s arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. There’s plenty of evidence against her, too. For one thing, she recently broke up with Boyes because she felt he was treating her badly. She was angry because after persuading her to live with him (and thus, risking her reputation), Philip had asked her to marry him. This, Harriet says, meant Boyes had just been testing her, and that infuriates her. What’s more, Harriet purchased arsenic, the poison used to kill Boyes, and had it in her possession at the time of the death.