Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers
Strong Poison is the fifth of Dorothy L. Sayers’ full-length murder-mystery novels featuring aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. This is the novel in which he meets the love of his life, Harriet Vane, under adverse circumstances – she is being tried for the murder of her lover.
Lord Peter is convinced that Harriet is innocent, but unfortunately he is the only person (other than Harriet herself) to think so; indeed, the evidence is overwhelming. But Lord Peter is determined to prove Harriet innocent, and to woo her at the same time.
Both of this objectives turn out to be rather difficult; the real murderer is diabolically clever, and Harriet herself has been hurt by her appalling lover (a young man whom I consider to be very much better off dead) and by her ordeal. Lord Peter’s proposal falls sadly flat: it’s only one of many she’s had since she was arrested, since notoriety is attractive to some. Her opinion of men, therefore, would require deep-shaft mining equipment to be lower, and her opinion of herself is hardly better.
I’ve read this book many times; it’s one of my favourites in the series. Not only is Sayers’ plotting beautifully, devilishly, clever, but she is an excellent writer of character. Lord Peter comes across as rather dramatic and affected, but as you get to know him, you realise it’s mostly a pose to hide his real feelings from the world. After all, if the world is going to laugh at him, he is damn well going to be in control of what they laugh at, and when.
Harriet, on the other hand, is a clever, middle-class young woman who got involved with a young man who tricked her into becoming his lover – in a society where sex before marriage was still shocking – by declaring that he, an avant garde novelist, didn’t believe in marriage. Now she’s agreed, and damned herself into the eyes of society thereby, he is ready to reward her sacrifice with marriage. She sees right through his hypocrisy and dumps him, thus beginning the chain of events that ends with her in the dock.
The pair of them are real, complex people. They’ve both been hurt in the past; they’re both ferociously intelligent (Sayers herself was one of the first female Oxford graduates, and she does the reader the courtesy of assuming they are just as intelligent as she and her characters are) and they’re both proud, although of different things. They are clearly drawn to each other, but Harriet can’t bring herself to trust anyone, certainly not someone to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Right from the beginning, though, you know that they are meant for each other – it’s a union of minds, not a union of bodies. It’s a refreshing change from so many of today’s novels where lust takes the place of love, and authors write characters who are physically attracted to each other but seem to pay no attention to each other’s personalities.
Anyone, moreover, who expects that Harriet will fall into Peter’s arms at the end of the book is doomed to disappointment: why would she? She has her life back, given to her by Peter, but does that mean that he now has the right to dictate how she will spend it? No, it does not, and Harriet is determined to make sure he – and everyone else – knows that. Poor Peter is going to have to do a lot more digging, and Harriet is going to have to forgive him for being the person to get her out of a humiliating hole – and forgive herself for being fool enough to fall in love with an unworthy man, which got her into the hole in the first place – before she can regain the emotional strength and equilibrium to make a new start.
Harriet and Peter are real; they are hurt, and they occasionally hurt each other, either intentionally or accidentally. They each want what the relationship promises, but they are also afraid of it. Their relationship begins badly on both sides, and it takes a long time for them to repair the damage. And we get to see it happen, not in one book, because it’s too complex a process for that – such problems are not so easy to solve. It takes several books, but the wait is worth it.
The Lord Peter Wimsey books are classics of detective fiction; it was first published in 1930 and is still in print. How many of today’s novels will still be in print in seventy years’ time? But unlike many classics, Lord Peter has stood the test of time. Yes, in some ways he is dated – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, his whole world, is gone. But his humanity, the relationships he has with his beloved (eccentric) mother the Dowager Duchess, his huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ older brother the Duke of Denver and the appalling Helen, the Duchess; his valet – not only manservant but also right-hand-man and, in a way, trusted friend – these are still very relevant.
The Lord Peter Wimsey books are some of my favourites; I’ve read all of them over and over. If you like a well-written story with excellent characterisation and some fiendish plotting, then you will enjoy these books too.