Saturday, August 3, 2013

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

I read all or most of Dorothy Sayers's detective novels a good ten years or so back, and didn't touch them again until this week. When I read the books for the first time, I did not really take my time and digest them as I am trying to do now, and so I am still only just getting to grips with Sayers.

And I've found she takes a bit of gripping. On the one hand, she was an apologist, medievalist, and Christian who was a lifelong friend of CS Lewis, a fan of Charles Williams and GK Chesterton (to say nothing of Wodehouse and Gilbert and Sullivan), whose essay The Lost Tools of Learning has had a major impact on the current-day home education and classical school movement, a gifted writer of detective novels, a gifted translator of The Divine Comedy, and the copywriter behind one of the 20th century's most iconic advertising campaigns--Guiness is Good for You!

On the other hand, Sayers has become (intentionally or not--in 1938, she stated that the time for "feminism" had gone past) a mascot for Christian feminism. Her most popular work, her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, while in many ways excellent and delightful books, centre on a character with morals and opinions which I sometimes find lax to repellant. And I always seem to find plenty to disagree with in her more serious works.

While I will have to postpone any serious critique of Sayers until I have a stronger grip on her worldview (her books The Mind of the Maker and Are Women Human? will most likely answer some of my questions) Strong Poison is pretty illustrative of this tension--as well as being a tremendously enjoyable murder mystery laced lightly with romance.

We open in a courtroom. Harriet Vane, popular detective novelist, stands in the dock charged with the murder of novelist Philip Boyes. Boyes had badgered Miss Vane into becoming his mistress, arguing that he didn't believe in marriage, but when he eventually did propose to her, she angrily broke up with him, declaring that he had made a fool of her. A few months later, Boyes drops dead of arsenic poisoning, Harriet Vane is found to have made a number of large and secret purchases of deadly poison, and everyone believes her to be guilty...

Everyone except two people. Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster in the jury, persists in believing that Harriet is innocent. And Miss Climpson's employer Lord Peter Wimsey (ostensibly a rich idiot, actually a formidably intelligent amateur sleuth), who not only believes Harriet is innocent, but has also decided to marry her. When Miss Climpson's adamant refusal to return a verdict of guilty saves Harriet from the gallows, and the case is scheduled for re-trial, Wimsey gets his chance: just one month in which to find the real killer.

Strong Poison is, like all Sayers's Wimsey novels, an excellent whodunit. Perhaps the two most enjoyable aspects of the book are the characters and the satire. Sayers enjoyed poking fun at regnant follies in all her novels, and this one has a number of memorable cracks at spiritualism on the one hand, and modern art on the other--
  "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."
  The speaker certainly did not err along these lines, for he was as bald and round as a billiard-ball. Wimsey replied soothingly:
  "Well, what can you do with the wretched and antiquated instruments of our orchestra? A diatonic scale, bah! Thirteen miserable, bourgeois semi-tones, pooh! To express the infinite complexity of modern emotion, you need a scale of thirty-two notes to the octave."
  "But why cling to the octave?" said the fat man. "Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention."
   "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." 
As for the characters, I never yet read a detective story for the mystery. In some ways, the well-known tropes of the detective story allow a truly character-driven plot--things happen, which prevents the book from becoming tiresome, and we get to enjoy the antics of Wimsey and Miss Climpson and Harriet Vane attempting to solve a puzzle and investigating other people's peculiar characters.

Strong Poison is the first book to feature Lord Peter's sidekick and love interest, Harriet Vane, and the questions of women and "gender politics" (distasteful phrase!) form a major, though not obtrusive, theme in this book. There are Harriet's two friends, both keen to see her acquitted, one of whom is a modern feminist of the straw variety and the other of which is a nice girl mildly smitten with Wimsey (which seems to happen once per book). There's Miss Climpson and her "typists", really a collection of elderly and out-of-work ladies employed by Lord Peter to handle sensitive investigations, women "of the class unkindly known as 'superfluous.'"

Then there is Harriet Vane herself. From previous reading, I remembered getting rather tired of Harriet, who, according to my first impressions, spends five years within the novels' continuity refusing to marry their hero because of a childish fit of pride and pique. (If you come back tomorrow and find Vintage Novels burned to the ground with the foundations sown with salt and my blackened skull stuck on a stake in the midst of the smoking ruin, it was the Harriet Vane fans, and they went that way). Harriet wasn't so bad in Strong Poison, however. There are sly digs at the expense of Harriet's very unsympathetic boyfriend--he was the kind of man, for example, who would have expected her to give up writing on her own behalf in order to help him in his calling, how ghastly.

It's probably worth noting that Harriet's story is loosely based on Sayers's own relationship with a novelist called John Cournos. Sayers later strenuously denied that Harriet was a self-insert character, after various busybodies began spreading nasty (and untrue) rumours about her personal life. Oddly enough, years before I knew this, simply from reading the novels I was convinced that Sayers had one of the most visible cases of an author crush on her main character that I had ever seen, and felt sure that Harriet--whom he spends years devotedly pursuing--was a self-insert.

Well, it has been a number of years since then, and I can honestly say not only that Sayers is no longer the worst example of author-crush-relieved-through-self-insert-romance I have seen, but also that she is several thousand miles away from being the worst. This perspective also makes me less ready to write Sayers--or Harriet Vane--off as tiresome feminists. I was almost surprised to find myself agreeing with Harriet in her quarrel with Philip Boyes--being hounded into an affair with arguments against marriage, and then being offered marriage as, in Harriet's words, "a bad-conduct prize", the whole thing having been a paltry test of devotion, would make me hopping mad too. Hopefully this is a good sign, and when I go on to re-read Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night I will like Harriet Vane just as much as anyone else.

It's probably time to start reading Sayers properly, and while I must apologise for not being able to do her justice in this quick post, I hope to spend some more time reading what she has to say and thinking it through.

If you like clever, witty detective novels flavoured with fun literary allusions, set in Wodehouse time, and containing many lovable characters (how did I get this far without mentioning Lady Mary Wimsey and Chief Inspector Parker?), Dorothy Sayers may not just be an excellent choice--she may in fact be the best choice. Next time you're laid up with the flu, don't just take panadol--take Strong Poison.

Read the book:

Carolyn McCulley's thoughtful review of Are Women Human?


Joseph Jalsevac said...

I have only read two of her books and her Wikipedia page, but I agree that I find her hard to place. I certainly didn't find her characters in Whose Body? and Murder Must Advertise to be very morally admirable. In the latter novel Lord Peter even commits that most disgustingly immoral act, which I first encountered to my great disappointment in a Poirot novel, of suggesting to the villain that he commit suicide (I can only imagine what Fr. Brown would say to that!). Those books were largely enjoyable, but I found the amorality of Lord Peter to be a little too studied, especially when he shows occasional flashes of both a suppressed, rather coy, Christian orthodoxy, and a callous utilitarian immorality. Perhaps this is the result of trying to take Bertie Wooster out of his amoral dream world and placing him in situations fraught with grave moral implications. I can never quite accept Lord Peter as a real person. Wooster meets Holmes? An interesting thought, but a self-contradiction. Maybe I'm being too harsh.

MiaTheReader said...

I prefer P.G. Wodehouse over Dorothy Sayers! Yes, I know that Wodehouse doesn't write mysteries, but I those two authors seem to be kind of the same genre in my mind. Maybe it's the time period and types of characters. I wish Jeeves had been a detective. He would have made a stellar one. =)

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Now Jeeves as a detective I can see!

Samadrita said...

Sounds like a great book. I came across a few Dorothy Sayers books up for review on NG recently, but didn't request.


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