Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Dorothy Sayers’ work has been quite influential in the world of crime fiction, and her Lord Peter Wimsey is one of crime fiction’s enduring and beloved characters. Besides, on a personal note, I happen to admire her work very much and couldn’t really imagine leaving her novels out of this series. So today, let’s take a closer look at Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison.
The novel begins at the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane. She’s arrested for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. There’s plenty of evidence against her, too. For one thing, she recently broke up with Boyes because she felt he was treating her badly. She was angry because after persuading her to live with him (and thus, risking her reputation), Philip had asked her to marry him. This, Harriet says, meant Boyes had just been testing her, and that infuriates her. What’s more, Harriet purchased arsenic, the poison used to kill Boyes, and had it in her possession at the time of the death. Her claim is that she bought the arsenic to do research for her forthcoming novel, but of course, many people don’t believe her. Finally, there’s the evidence of what Philip Boyes ate and drank on the day of the murder. That day, he had dinner with his cousin, Norman Urquhart, and afterwards went to visit Harriet with the goal of patching things up between them. When he arrived at Harriet’s home, she gave him a cup of coffee. That coffee was the only thing that Phillip Boyes had that no-one else had.
Despite all of this evidence, one member of the jury, Miss Climpson, is not convinced of Harriet Vane’s guilt. Her refusal to convict leaves the jury hopelessly deadlocked. The judge has no choice but to release the jury and schedule a new trial. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, doesn’t think Harriet Vane is guilty, either, and determines to clear her name. It’s not just that he thinks she’s innocent, either; Lord Peter has fallen in love with Harriet. So he sets out to discover what really happened to Philip Boyes. With help from Miss Climpson, who owns a typewriting bureau, Mervyn Bunter, his valet, and his friend Chief Inspector Charles Parker, Wimsey looks into the death of Philip Boyes. He finds that Boyes’ murder had nothing to do with his broken relationship with Harriet Vane. In the end, through a few ruses and tricks, Wimsey gets the evidence he needs to catch Boyes’ killer.
One of the elements that runs through this novel is the sexism of the era in which Sayers wrote. For example, we learn early in the novel that Philip Boyes and Harriet Vane were living together without being married. In fact, that’s a key part of the reason that Harriet was angry with Philip. Philip’s reputation doesn’t suffer at all. He’s considered a ‘free spirit” who needed to be creative and couldn’t be expected to settle down. On the other hand, Harriet is regarded as notorious for having lived with a man without marriage. It’s one reason for which many people are suspicious of her (i.e. “Any woman who would live with a man and not be married to him can’t be that trustworthy and deserves what she gets.”).
We also see sexism at the office of Norman Urquhart, who is by profession an attorney. His head clerk, Mr. Pond, has extremely old-fashioned views about women. For instance, Mr. Urquhart has recently hired a female clerk, Miss Murchison, for his staff, and Mr. Pond is none too happy about it:
“Miss Murchison galloped noisily over the keys, slamming the shift-lever over with unnecessary violence, and causing Mr. Pond once more to regret the intrusion of female clerks.”
Miss Murchison does little to dissuade him, as we find later in the novel:
“Miss Murchison looked up from her typewriter"
‘Is anything the matter, Mr. Pond?’
‘No, nothing,’ said the head clerk testily. ‘A foolish letter from a foolish member of your sex, Miss Murchison.’
‘That’s nothing new.’”
You might argue that Sayers was criticizing that sexism. Both Miss Murchison and Miss Climpson use the assumptions made about women to “hide” undercover work that they are doing for Wimsey.
Social class is also an element that we see in Strong Poison. Lord Peter is “well-born,” and his money and class open doors for him that would not be opened to someone with a lower social status. For instance, he’s not challenged when he visits Harriet Vane in prison. He’s welcomed almost obsequiously into Norman Urquhart’s office. He’s also granted access to several witnesses and pieces of evidence that someone from a “lesser” class wouldn’t have been able to access.
Again, though, you could argue that Sayers was criticizing those class-based prejudices. For instance, one of the sub-plots of the novel is Inspector Parker’s interest in Wimsey’s sister Mary, and her interest in the Inspector. Neither has admitted that infatuation to the other, but with Wimsey’s help, they make a match of it. At the end of the novel, Wimsey’s brother Gerald, Duke of Denver says,
“You’ve got to do something. She [Mary] wants to marry your policeman friend.”
“I know….why shouldn’t she?”
“Not at all…Charles is one of the best.”
“Very likely…but Mary can’t marry a policeman.”
Not only does Wimsey support his sister, but he then says he’s going to marry Harriet Vane.
At one point in the novel, Wimsey needs the assistance of a man he calls Bill, a reformed thief-turned-evangelist. Bill is from the lower class, and his home and lifestyle are quite different from Wimsey’s. And yet, Wimsey treats him with respect and actually, it’s Bill’s skill at lockbreaking that provides Wimsey with an important piece of evidence that he needs.
Wimsey’s encounter with Bill is an example of another element that also runs through the novel: a sense of humour. Sayers uses very witty language in several places in the story. Here’s a snippet of a conversation that Wimsey has with Miss Murchison one evening as they are going to Bill’s home.
“By the way….this person we are going to see – has he a name?”
“I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.” [Wimsey]
“Not very, perhaps, if he – er – gives lessons in lockpicking.”
“I mean, his name’s Rumm.”
“Oh: what is it then?”
"Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.”
“Oh! I beg your pardon.”
“But he doesn’t care to use it, now that he is a total abstainer.”
“Then what does one call him?”
“I call him Bill,” said Wimsey…
There is also the character of Harriet Vane that runs through this novel. In fact, you might say that her character is one of the story’s focal points. Opinion is, of course, divided on whether she’s a murderess. Boyes’ avant-garde friends dislike her and her hold over Boyes. Lord Peter and his friends are sure she’s the victim of a frame-up. The press and her publicist see Harriet as so much grist for their mills. She’s presented as an interesting and complex character: at once strong enough to endure the trial and maintain her innocence (and possibly to have committed murder), she’s also quite vulnerable. She’s modern enough to want a career and to be proud of her individual, independent success, but she’s old-fashioned enough to care about her reputation. She’s proud enough not to want to be beholden to Wimsey, but humble (and shrewd) enough to accept his help and be grateful for it. She’s intelligent and capable and as a character, quite possibly ahead of her time.
What’s your view? Have you read Strong Poison? If you have, what elements have you seen in it?
Coming Up on In The Spotlight
Monday 4 October/Tuesday 5 October – The Black Ice – Michael Connelly
Monday 11 October/Tuesday 12 October – The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie
Monday 18 October/Tuesday 19 October – Gallows View – Peter Robinson