Book review: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

I’ve finally read Strong Poison, fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I actually read (listened to) Gaudy Night first, despite how I’m normally scrupulous about experiencing a series in its published order. I was very impressed with Gaudy Night, and naturally it made me curious about Strong Poison, the book where Harriet and Peter first meet, as Harriet is on trial for murder.

(This is also, incidentally, the first Wimsey book I actually read rather than listened to.)

It’s a short little book, under 200 pages, but satisfying. I like how we’re introduced to the plot by the judge’s summation of the case before the jury goes out to deliberate.

The case was interesting enough, but I most enjoyed the book for its study of the culture and counter-cultures of the time. First, of course, there was Harriet’s scandalizing behavior of moving in with her lover out of wedlock, which the judge does not consider out of bounds for judging — though he also does point out to the jury that just because a person may be immoral in one aspect of their life, that does not necessarily mean they are inclined to murder.

As part of his investigation, Peter visits artists’ bohemian parties, which are described as loud, hot, crowded, and smelling overwhelmingly of cooking sausages (as indeed they were being cooked). What I really liked in those scenes was how easily Peter adapts to any type of audience. To a man complaining about how unnecessary and restrictive the octave is to music:

“That’s the spirit!” said Wimsey. “I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are. The love-hunger of the stallion takes no account of octave or interval in giving forth the cry of passion. It is only man, trammelled by a stultifying convention — Oh, hullo, Marjorie, sorry — what is it?”

And you just know that if Marjorie hadn’t come by for another half hour, he could have carried on just fine.

Another sub-culture is a group of feminists not unlike some feminist circles today. An interaction with one woman, Eiluned, who is described as “anti-man:”

“No, thanks,” [she said] 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.”


Eiluned laughed.

“No, there never was much money, except what Harriet made. The ridiculous public didn’t appreciate Phil Boyes. He couldn’t forgive her that, you know.”

“Didn’t it come in useful?”

“Of course, but he resented it all the same. She ought to have been ministering to his work, not making money for them both with her own independent trash. But that’s men all over.”

“You haven’t much opinion of us, what?”

“I’ve known too many borrowers,” said Eiluned Price, “and too many that wanted their hands held. All the same, the women are just as bad, or they wouldn’t put up with it. Thank Heaven, I’ve never borrowed and never lent — except to women, and they pay back.”

“People who work hard usually do pay back, I fancy,” said Wimsey, “–except geniuses.”

“Women geniuses don’t get coddled,” said Miss Price, grimly, “so they learn not to expect it.”

But Peter really does respect women, as evidenced by his “Cattery” and the amount of trust he puts in Miss Climpson — and it’s a nice nod by the author, as well, how she was given a good chunk of the narration. And I should mention here too that yes, there’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek edge to this book, as it’s written by a woman author about a fictional woman author in a contemporary time period, and characters portray the most horribly sexist attitudes about Women Doing Things:

“…Just because she couldn’t write anything but tripe herself. Harriet Vane’s got the bug all these damned women have got — fancy they can do things. They hate a man and they hate his work. You’d think it would have been enough for her to help and look after a genius like Phil, wouldn’t you? Why, damn it, he used to ask her advice about his work, her advice, good lord!”

“Did he take it?”

“Take it? She wouldn’t give it. Told him she never gave opinions on other authors’ work. Other authors! The impudence of it! Of course she was out of things among us all, but why couldn’t she realise the difference between her mind and his?”

Peter is wonderfully progressive for his class and time, of course — just the fact he fell in love with a woman on trial for murder. He knew she was innocent of that crime, of course, but it was true that she’d been living with a man out of marriage — and he didn’t mind. When she points that out to him as an impossible obstacle for most men in their culture, he cheerfully responds by assuring her he also has experience. He really does respect her, and while I can’t quite buy falling into that sort of let’s-get-married love just by watching someone’s trial, without even speaking to them directly, the way he proposed to her in their first conversation was pretty wonderful. And his daydream about married life was touchingly poignant, capturing (in my mind) the beauty of married life at its best:

“…she’s got a sense of humor too — brains — one wouldn’t be dull — one would wake up, and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in — and then one would come home and go to bed — that would be jolly, too — and while she was writing, I could go out and mess round, so we shouldn’t either of us be dull…”

It was also nice that he made time to nudge Parker along to proposing to Mary, Peter’s own sister, with whom Parker was smitten back in the second book (Clouds of Witness). I love how Peter berated him, in his usual style, when Parker made clear how very proper he’d been, never going near any subject that might be deemed inappropriate, and Peter responds with “Why not,” followed by:

“What a perfect Victorian you are, Charles. I should like to keep you in a glass case.”

I liked the resolutions — Parker and Mary engaged to marry, but Harriet refusing Peter. It was too soon, after all, and she was going through too much turmoil.

As ever, not enough Bunter.

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