Nov 5, 2009

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

 Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

Isn’t that a great opening line? I love how symbolic it turns out to be, and I love the fact that it’s echoed near the end of the book. Strong Poison, published in 1930, is the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series of mysteries to feature Harriet Vane. For this reason, several of you recommended it as an introduction to Sayers’ work back when I asked you about mysteries.

Harriet Vane, a mystery writer, has been accused of poisoning her ex-lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. The case against her is strong: not only did she appeared to have a motive, as she and Philip had quarrelled, but he also visited her the night he died. Furthermore, Harriet has been proven to have purchased arsenic in the months before Philip’s death. The reason, she says, is that she’s writing a mystery novel that features a case of murder by arsenic, but will the jury believe her? The only one who seems fully convinced of Harriet Vane’s innocence is Lord Peter Wimsey. But he doesn’t have long to prove it beyond doubt and thus save her from hanging. And the only way to do that, it seems, is to find the real murderer.

Ah, a mystery from the 30’s – why haven’t I been reading these for years? Part of what makes Strong Poison such a joy to read is the language, specifically the way Peter Wimsey speaks. His speech is full of expressions like “dash it all” or “old horse” or random “what?”s at the end of sentences, among other old-fashioned British touches—it was such a delight to read.

But it takes more than an interesting way of speaking for me to love a character, and Peter Wimsey has what it takes. He’s so funny! And also very perceptive, and not given to underestimating people for reasons like their class or gender, which I imagine to be unusual for an aristocrat of his time. Plus, his chemistry with Harriet Vane is simply amazing. I loved the scenes where the two of them were together, and even though I suspect what this will all lead to, I’m very glad indeed I’m reading these books in order.

As you can probably tell by now, I was more taken with the 30’s setting and the characterization than with the mystery itself, but this isn’t to say it wasn’t a good one. If I were to point out a flaw, I’d say that Strong Poison was perhaps too short for the suspense to truly build up. I was able to guess whodunit, but I couldn’t tell you exactly at what point because I was paying more attention to the characters’ interactions. And anyway, more interesting than the “who” was the “how”, which I most certainly did not guess and found very satisfying.

I loved the fact that the most crucial steps in the investigation where not taken by Lord Peter Wimsey himself, but by two women he went to for help, Miss Murchinson and Miss Climpson. Both are daring and intelligent women, and inconspicuous by definition because those who surrounded them constantly underestimate them. I have to wonder how much of Dorothy L. Sayers’ experience with underestimation—she who was a very intelligent woman living in the early 20th century, and one of the first women to graduate from Oxford—made its way into these characters’ sections. Anyway, it was immensely satisfying to see those who patronized them pay a price for doing so. Go Miss Murchinson! Go Miss Climpson!

I’ll leave you with a great quote about Dorothy L. Sayers’ work from the introduction by Elizabeth George:
She saw the crime and its ensuing investigation as merely the framework for a much larger story, the skeleton – if you will – upon which she could hang the muscles, organs, blood vessels and physical features of a much larger tale. She wrote what I like to call the tapestry novel, a book in which the setting is realised (from Oxford, to the dramatic coast of Devon, to the flat bleakness of the Fens), in which throughout both the plot and the subplots the characters serve functions surpassing that of mere actors on the stage of the criminal investigation, in which themes are explored, in which life and literary symbols are used, in which allusions to other literature abound.
PS: Because Philip Boyes was poisoned, his final meal is described in quite a bit of detail, and for dessert he had a sweet omelette with hot jam. It had never occurred to me before that omelettes could be had sweet instead of salty, but after reading Strong Poison I made myself one with warm homemade apple sauce and a sprinkle of cinnamon and ginger, and it was delicious. I suppose it’s a bit odd that a book about arsenic poisoning would make me want to cook, especially something that involves sugar, but there you go.

One passage I especially liked:
He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hit fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.
Reviewed at:
Jenny’s Books
The Curious Reader
Lines from the Page

(Did I miss yours?)

36 comments:

  1. I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed your first Sayers, and I'm kicking myself that I didn't start here instead of with Gaudy Night. I tend to enjoy these "golden age" mysteries a good deal, so it was disappointing to have my first book by this author be one that felt so strongly predicated on knowledge of previous books. At least you're doing it right!

    Also, although they're not mysteries, if you enjoyed the whimsical language in this book as much as you claim, then you might give P.G. Wodehouse a shot. I read my first Jeeves & Wooster novel earlier this year and was immediately enamored with the language and the humor.

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  2. I recall enjoying Have His Carcase when I read it for a Detective Fiction course during college. I love mysteries from back in the day as well.

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  3. I just love old fashioned mystery stories, bit Agatha Christie fan. I haven't read this series yet and it sounds just great. Will definitely start with this one though, so will pop it on my tbr list. Thanks for the great review :)

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  4. A whole series of books that I have never heard of. They sound fabulous. I love that opening line. I don't think I have read many books from the 30's.

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  5. I'll also have to try this as my first Dorothy Sayers. I've never read her either. It sounds great. Thanks for your review.

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  6. I'm so glad you liked this! I love to read Dorothy Sayers, both her fiction and non-fiction. Isn't that great to find out about different ways of preparing food? A sweet omelette sounds delicious. Have you had tamago at a Japanese restaurant? In case not, it is basically a bit of sweet omelette perched on top of sushi rice. Yum!

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  7. Strong Poison was also the first mystery by Sayers that I read. I loved for all the reasons you mentioned, and reviewed it here. I've read the rest of the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mysteries since then, and they are all fabulous. I think I like Busman's Holiday the most, not for the mystery, but for the intense character/relationship development.

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  8. I think I read one or two Sayers many years ago, but never followed up on it.

    You have written an awesome review! Now I am interested in reading Sayers and I know my mother has a huge collection of her books, so I guess I can borrow some from her.

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  9. I am a huge fan of the mystery genre, so I must read this! I think it is great that it inspired you to cook a sweet omelet! It maybe is like a dessert crepe?

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  10. I haven't read any Sayers yet, but your review makes me realize I'm missing out! Thanks also for pointing us towards your Sunday Salon post about mysteries, which I'd somehow missed.

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  11. I have only read one book by Sayers (Gaudy Night) but it wasn't a complete success for me, since I really needed to start at the beginning. I am really glad you enjoyed it and recommend it. I may try again!

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  12. Yay! I'm so glad you liked this! And you're spot on about the mystery being more of a "howdunit" than a "whodunit." The same is true in the next book, Have His Carcase. And in Gaudy Night, the mystery is really just a backdrop for character development, etc. (It's my favorite, but that's because I love the characters so much.)

    If you can get ahold of the BBC adaptations with Edward Peterbridge as Lord Peter, they're well worth watching. The Strong Poison adaptation is particularly good. Miss Climpson is a treat!

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  13. My mom was an avid Sayers reader, but I have yet to pick one up. It wounds terrific!

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  14. I love old fashioned stories and this sounds really good. My mom loves British mysteries - she says they're more sophisticated - so I bet she'd love this!

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  15. I love reading mystery, and this one sounds good! I don't think I've read any mystery from the 30's so I'll keep a look out for this!

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  16. I like Peter's expressions!! I may have to use "dash it all" tomorrow!! This book sounds fun to read for sure. I've never read a Sayers book.

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  17. I have never read Sayers, but a friend of mine has enjoyed several of her books. Character development is what is important to me in a good mystery.

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  18. I'm so pleased you liked it! Wonderful, isn't it? Harriet and Peter are great together in the second one, Have His Carcase - they spend much more time together in that one than in Strong Poison or Gaudy Night. It's nice to see them having fun together.

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  19. Sounds good! I've wanted to read Sayers for awhile, just haven't gotten to it yet. And since you quoted Elizabeth George I hope you'll give her books a chance as well, I love them.

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  20. Oh I love mysteries and haven't read anything by Dorothy Sayers yet. Thanks for the great review. I will have to add this one to my list.

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  21. Sounds great! Why haven't I read a Dorothy L. Sayers book before now?

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  22. It has been a long time since I read a "Lord Peter"--twill be a perfect thing to do some rainy Sunday. I love Sayers--you might like Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, or Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn though there's less "dash it all" in those books.
    And the BBC/PBS adaptations of the Wimsey books were wonderful!
    Thank you for this; I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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  23. Strong Poison is a great mystery but wait till the next one in the series, Have His Carcasse...it's even better!

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  24. I've heard of the author but haven't read this book. I really like the title too. thanks for the review Nymeth.

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  25. Wow, I like that opening! I think I've read one of her books. Great review on this one!

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  26. Hey...you said you weren't an adventurous eater...you're going to have to give up on that notion now! :D
    A sweet omelet...hmmm...not sure if I'm brave enough to try...

    But I want to know why the hell I haven't been reading her books too?!! This sounds sooooo good...I'm thoroughly convinced that I would love wrapping up in a blanket in a cozy chair and loosing myself in this one! So, off to the library website am heading right now...

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  27. Now I know more about why people like these books. And I love the sweet omelet story. It is perverse, in a delightful way.

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  28. Ah, I love mysteries from this time period!

    Have you ever read anything by Dashiell Hammett? He's pretty funny as well. Oh! And of course there's Agatha. ;p

    I like that the main character's name is Wimsey. Very nice!

    And a sweet omelette? Yikes! The thought makes me cringe, but I shouldn't knock it til I try it... maybe for dessert tonight!

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  29. a mystery set in the 30's...sounds great! I need to add this to my TBR.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  30. Nymeth - I have not read Sayers yet but my husband loves her. I seem to be on a mystery kick right now so I will start with this one. Thanks for the wonderful review!

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  31. I often don't read mysteries but this one sounds interesting.I love the introduction quote from George.

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  32. I used to read a ton of old mysteries. My grandmother collected them. She is the one who started me on my Agatha Christie obessession. Have you read any Josephine Tey? The Daughter of Time is WONDERFUL! If you liked Sayer, you'll like Tey.

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  33. Sounds great! Sadly (and no one knows why) I'm always looking for new series to start, I'll have a look for this one, just to make all my lists longer!

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  34. Steph: I was going to start with Gaudy Night too - I just didn't because another blogger alerted me in time! But you can always go back and read this, and hopefully appreciate it more on a second read. It's funny that you mention Wodehouse - at one point in this book, Wimsey tells his man to quit talking like Jeeves :D I promised myself I'd read Wodehouse this year and have yet to do it. Must amend that soon!

    Charley: I will hopefully be reading that soon!

    Carolyn: I'm only just starting to discover mysteries, so I still have the whole of Christie's work to explore!

    Vivienne: Hmm...me neither, actually. But it's never too late :P

    Amanda: I hope you enjoy it!

    Terri B: I hadn't, but it would a nice way to do this month's Hello Japan task, now that you mention it :P

    Page Turner: Thank you - I added your link! It sounds like I have some excellent reading ahead of me :)

    Louise: I'm glad I have convinced you to read some more Sayers! Enjoy!

    Sandy: It was a bit similar, yes, except for the no flour bit :P But the taste wasn't all that different.

    Avi: I got mystery suggestions to last me a lifetime - this is why I love book bloggers :D

    Zibilee: I almost started with that one too! Like I was telling Steph, hopefully you'll enjoy it more the second time around after reading the ones that come before.

    Teresa: I must see if I can find those adaptations!

    Stephanie: It was! Hopefully you'll think so too :)

    Kathy: I honestly haven't read enough mysteries to be able to say if I agree, but this one *was* sophisticated :P

    Melody: They don't call it "the golden age" for nothing, I guess ;)

    Staci: lol! I'll have to see if I can use it in a sentence this week :P

    Diane: For me too! In any book, really.

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  35. Jenny: I can't wait to read it :D Only 3 more books until I can order it.

    Amy: I actually hadn't heard of her before, but now I'm certainly intrigued! Loved her introduction.

    Bella, enjoy! :D

    heindekind: I asked myself the same :P

    ds: Thank you for the recommendations! I will keep them all in mind :)

    The Literary Stew: You're all making me even more eager to get to it :D

    Violet: hehe, it IS a good title :D

    Alice, I hope you enjoy them if you decide to give them a go!

    Debi: lol, it's the funniest thing - I'm not an adventurous eater, but I AM an adventurous cook :P I'm much more daring when it comes to experimenting in the kitchen than when it comes to trying new things when I eat out. I guess it's because I know exactly what went in the pan :P

    Jeanne: lol, I guess it is :P I wasn't sure if I should share, so I'm glad the story was appreciated :D

    She: I haven't! I've barely read ANY mysteries...I don't know why I deprived myself for so long. And the sweet omelette was not as weird as it may sound, promise :P

    Naida, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Gavin: I'm on a mystery kick as well :D

    Vasilly: Isn't it great? And judging by this book, it describes Sayers' work perfectly.

    Stephanie: Funny you should mention it - I mooched a copy of The Daughter of Time just the other day :D Now I'm even more excited to read it!

    Joanna: In theory, I'm not meant to be starting any new series. I can't seem to be able to help myself, though :P

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  36. I recently saw a theatrical adaptation of this book, and it made me want to rush out and get all Dorothy Sayers's books. The characters are so much fun!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.