Monday, March 3, 2014

Strong Poison, Dorothy Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey makes his fifth novel-length appearance in Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison (1930). Having read (1) the series out of order and having read the eleventh book -- Busman's Honeymoon (1937) -- most recently, it came as something of a shock to find Wimsey's confederate Miss Climpson hanging the jury trying Wimsey's beloved Harriet Vane for the arsenic poisoning of her former lover (2). As it turns out, of course, Vane and Wimsey are only just beginning their long courtship.

Even though Sayers was only 37 when Strong Poison was published, she reveals an interesting concern about growing older. At one point, Wimsey says
"Give me good food and a little air to breathe and I will caper, goat-like, to a dishonourable old age. People will point me out, as I creep, bald and yellow and supported by discreet corsetry, into the night-clubs of my great-grandchildren, and they'll say, 'Look, darling! that's the wicked Lord Peter, celebrated for never having spoken a reasonable word for the last ninety-six years. He was the only aristocrat who escaped the guillotine in the revolution of 1960."
At another point, the omniscient narrator says, "when [Wimsey] was an old man," which begs the question: From whence is Strong Poison being narrated?

I suppose Sayers was trying to distance herself from her time, which as this scene from a Bohemian musical performance illustrates, Sayers found rather silly:
"Bah!" said a voice in Wimsey's ear, as the cadaverous man turned away, "it is nothing. Bourgeois music. Programme music. Pretty! -— You should hear Vrilovitch's 'Ecstasy on the letter Z.' That is pure vibration with no antiquated pattern in it. Stanislas -— he thinks much of himself, but it is old as the hills —- you can sense the resolution at the back of all his discords. Mere harmony in camouflage. Nothing in it. But he takes them all in because he has red hair and reveals his bony structure."
Strong Poison features Miss Climpson perhaps a little too much -- though her Ouija board endeavors are amusing (and certainly seem to have inspired Patricia Wentworth's 1941 Weekend With Death, reviewed below) -- but moves along a quite a brisk pace and sets the scene for better books to follow, i.e. Gaudy Night.

Three daggers out of four.

(1) Counting here having listened to the audiobook of The Five Red Herrings as having "read" it.

(2) As much as a plot-summary as I intend to do in the reviews on this blog.


  1. Very interesting point about when the narrator is speaking from, though I am always tempted to put this down as sheer affectation of Sayers' part ...

  2. I find that I enjoy Sayers' writing and I like Lord Peter a good deal, but for me her books just don't quite make it as detective stories. That's particularly the case with this book.