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Archive for the ‘Dorothy L. Sayers’ Category

What a wonderful week for reading!  My rereading of old favourites for the 1930 Club continued on from The Diary of a Provincial Lady to Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (via Corduroy by Adrian Bell but I have complicated thoughts on that book and won’t manage to write about it before the Club is over).

Strong Poison was the fifth of Sayers’ mystery novels features Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite graduate of Eton and Oxford who loves old books, music, cricket, and sleuthing.  Suffering from shell shock after the First World War, Lord Peter, the second son of the Duke of Denver, loafed about a little before discovering in his early thirties a passion for crime solving.  And so he became one of the world’s best-loved literary detectives.

He is, as always, surrounded by a cast of excellent supporting characters: his delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess; Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective with whom Wimsey works closely (and who will eventually become his brother-in-law); and Miss Climpson, who runs what Wimsey refers to as “the Cattery”, an employment bureau stocked with useful women who can be installed as informants in offices and homes of interest to the cases Wimsey works on.  Best of all, Wimsey is supported by his batman-cum-valet Bunter who has been with him since the war and is integral to both the running of Wimsey’s life and the solving of crimes.

Strong Poison contains all of these beloved supporting characters and introduces the most important one of all: Harriet Vane.

When we – and Peter – meet her, Harriet Vane is in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murdering her former lover.  A detective novelist by trade, Harriet is twenty-nine years old, a graduate of Oxford, and, Peter is convinced, entirely innocent of the murder by poisoning of Philip Boyes.  Despite her plain appearance, Peter falls in love with Harriet at first sight and becomes determined to both prove her innocence and marry her.  He alerts her to both intentions when he finally manages to meet her.  Harriet, being an entirely sane and reasonable person, is not terribly impressed and sees a number of bumps along the path to wedded bliss.  Peter is unperturbed by these concerns, including her past relationship with Philip Boyes:

‘I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who’s an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, “Look here!  Here’s the absolutely one and only woman, and she’s being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God’s sake come and hold my hand!” You simply don’t know how foul it was.’

‘That does sound rather rotten.  I’m sorry I was brutal.  But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’

‘Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several.  It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.  I’m told I make love rather nicely – only I’m at a disadvantage at the moment.  One can’t be very convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the door.’

Of Harriet’s concern, separate from their romantic future, that she night not have any future at all as the jury seems inclined for her to face the gallows, Peter is equally confident:

‘People have been wrongly condemned before now.’

‘Exactly; simply because I wasn’t there.’

There is much to be said for such confidence.  And so Peter sets out to use all his intelligence and ingenuity to prove Harriet’s innocence.

Strong Poison is, aside from the murder bit, drawn on events from Sayers’ own life.  Harriet, Sayers’ alter ego, was involved in an intense affair with the deeply selfish Philip Boyes, a fellow novelist.  Despite Harriet’s desire to marry and live conventionally, Boyes’ asserted his beliefs in bohemian ideals and free love, eventually breaking down her resistance and convincing her to live with him.  In Sayers’ own situation, she had a passionate affair with a poet who, like Boyes, rejected convention and embraced free love.  After two years, they parted and Sayers’ love then married another.  In Strong Poison, she had the satisfaction of killing him off instead.

Peter is Sayers’ ideal man so it is no surprise that he proves to be the perfect foil to selfish Philip Boyes.  He appears and immediately offers the one thing Harriet had tried so hard to get from Boyes: marriage.  He plays no games and tells her that her past is no barrier to their future together – after all, he also has a past.  Why should hers be more of a barrier than his?  And Peter is wonderfully accepting of other views.  When he visits with Harriet’s friends to gain a better understanding of the case, he good naturedly responds to their egalitarian beliefs – no macho posturing for him:

‘No, thanks’ – as Wimsey advanced to carry the kettle – ‘I’m quite capable of carrying six pints of water.’

‘Crushed again!’ said Wimsey.

‘Eiluned disapproves of conventional courtesies between the sexes,’ said Marjorie.

‘Very well,’ replied Wimsey, amiably.  ‘I will adopt an attitude of passive decoration.’

And yet…Let us be clear, I enjoy these books and always find them entertaining.  But with the introduction of Harriet, I also find myself a little unsettled.  Peter’s pursuit of Harriet is determined and, in the face of Harriet’s repeated assertions that she will not marry him, that becomes a little disturbing.  And there was one statement that drew me up short:

‘…I say,’ said Wimsey, ‘that it would be better for her to be hanged outright than to live and have everybody think her a murderess who got off by a fluke.’

This seems a little out-of-character for Peter and it seems a sentiment that is more focused on his feelings than Harriet’s.  Peter can easily incorporate a wife who has been cleared of wrongdoing into his privileged world but one who still has the stain of notoriety would be a rather different matter.  This statement seems fixed on his concerns, rather than Harriet’s.  Yes, she is a proud woman but would she really prefer to be dead?  To be alive and free might appeal more to the prisoner herself.

In the end – thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Bunter and Miss Climpson – the true murderer is discovered and Harriet is freed.  All is well and we end the book with Peter still determined to marry Harriet and Harriet perhaps feeling a little more inclined in his favour.  But we’ve another five books for that story to play out across…

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