SCW Book Review: Strong Poison

Dorothy Sayers. Just look at that badass woman and her Mona Lisa smile.

Time on to-read: At LEAST four years, if not more.

Reason for not picking up: Although the first book I read by her was clever, there was a really strong anti-Semitic bit that I’ve always remembered. Unfortunately typical for her times and her class (and that’s what you get for reading older authors), but it always put me off as a first impression.

Reason for finally picking up: Doing a book rearrangement, it came randomly to the top of the pile. I’d already bought it at the same time I purchased the other one and it had been sitting there for years. Seemed like fate.

Verdict: I get it. But IDK about some of the extreme adoration, guys.

Dorothy Sayers has been a popular mystery writer for at least eighty years. She was writing books in the twenties and thirties and they, despite the competition of Agatha Christie and everyone else writing similarly mannered mystery puzzles and polite comedies of manners (which category her books also fall into), have lasted until now, which means they’ve come through at least three generations of fans. And it isn’t hard to see why.

Her most famous character (and deservedly) is Lord Peter Wimsey. He is the younger son and brother of a Duke in the interwar era who takes up “sleuthing” as his hobby. It’s like if Bertie Wooster decided to be Sherlock Holmes one day, plus about 100 IQ points and deeper heart and ironic self-awareness, but also retaining his faithful Jeeves (called Bunter in this series). His other hobby is reading, and his speech is a patchwork of classical, biblical and artistic references, often stopping and starting in the middle of thoughts, or making comments ten steps ahead of the conversation in the appealing manner of the incredibly smart and verbally gifted. His charm is undeniable- you smile because you’ve met him before, and then laugh because you haven’t, not really. He constantly surprises with his intelligence and insight, which leap all unexpected out of the apparently harmless “buffoonery” others identify him with and is all the more searing because of it.

In Strong Poison, this appealing charm is only added to by the fact that Peter is, at seemingly long last, showing his vulnerability and humanity beneath the clownish exterior, and he does it by falling deeply in love with an accused murderer, Harriet Vane. She is accused of murdering her former lover with arsenic, and as the story opens seems to be about a hairsbreadth from being convicted with pretty convincing evidence. But Peter Wimsey doesn’t believe it for a second! A hung jury allows for a second trial and a second chance for Peter to save her if he works fast- and that he most certainly does.

Surrounded by a cast of amusing and fully drawn supporting characters like the delightful clearly-recognizable-to-a-1930s-reading-public sweet old Miss Climpson, the Watson, of sorts, of the piece, the requisite actual near Bertie Wooster type, Freddy Arbuthnot- there clearly to highlight the difference, and the broadly drawn stereotype of a former lock picker Rumm, just to name a few, its hard not to get pulled along with and fall for this literarily inclined sitcom of a piece, packed with stand-alone comedy routines of episodes. (Indeed, I think Dorothy Sayers would have had a very good career as a staff writer on Fraiser or Gilmore Girls, had she been born a few decades later.)  Wimsey’s orchestration of the madness has an appropriately light touch and, rarely for a detective main character, he doesn’t hog the spotlight at all. Lots of characters get a chance to shine in this truly ensemble piece.

(Note: It was also a plus that the bothersomely insistent anti-Semitism I noticed in Whose Body (and I’m still unclear about whether it was editorial commentary or just on the part of characters who were unfortunately realistic for the time) isn’t present here except for a stray remark or two, and not from characters I think we’re meant to admire, so that was also a big step up.)

But I actually, for all my trying, could not jump into the waters and be swept along. The first major weakness is the mystery itself. I guessed all the twists chapters before the main characters did, to the point where I wanted to smack my forehead when they finally figured it out. I guessed the murderer a few chapters after they were first mentioned. The villain is unsatisfyingly stupid, to the point where even Sayers questions him, “Sooo… why didn’t he just do this to cover himself?”.. and essentially gives an answer of, “IDK, don’t question it- good luck for our dashing main character!” Which I get, Peter is what we’re here for for sure. But it made some of the machinations to figure out what happened feel longer than they would have without at least a little suspense. Partly I think this is not Sayers’ fault- I am conditioned to figure out the murderer by who they are mentioned by, when they are mentioned, how much information gets repeated and by whom because I have read many of Sayers’ descendants and I know the rules. Perhaps at the time it was written people hadn’t been trained enough to figure that out.

Secondly, I found Harriet Vane underwhelming- I was promised someone awesome, and I think she just didn’t get enough screen time to show it. Oh, she was cool when we saw her, but it was in two to five page spurts every fifty pages or so. I gathered from the testimony of others definitely a strong, independent woman with an unconventional life and a lot of integrity, which was amazing, especially in an older book, but again, no chance to show it- she only appeared in spurts of two to five pages every four or five chapters. I also thought that Peter’s relationship with her during this time was much less charming than I think he meant it to be- a lot of it was an uncomfortable example of a man exerting power over a woman who has no choice but to play to him, whether she honestly likes him or not. And even if she does, it’ll maybe never be totally clear. It all ended up all right and I approve of where Sayers took it and I’d be interested to see what a Harriet Vane not currently under arrest for murder would be like as a character, but she didn’t show to her best advantage here.

Thirdly, I really wish the book had spent more time on letting us glimpse beneath Peter’s lighthearted nature- the few scenes where he playfully-but-not-playfully took people to task for getting upset with him for showing his humanity, rather than just being a delightful, dumb jokester all the time that others could use to lighten their mood (using Jon Stewart’s Crossfire “monkey” line centuries before it became famous to contemporary people). It was affecting- I get that part of its power was being used sparingly and too much might put off an audience who also loves him the way he is, but I guess Sayers was just too good at these parts. I really loved Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, which does kind of a similiar thing and sets up a “buffoon” as the romantic hero, defending him and all his virtues the whole while against the more popular Byronic type. Sayers had more to work with in her secretly-actually-smart hero and I wish she’d done it. Just my personal preference for seeing people in layers, I guess. I get that this is a polite mystery from the 1930s and what I’m talking about is a modern thing. New fanfiction idea!

If I read another Sayers I think I’ll try  Have his Carcase or Gaudy Night,  both of which are supposed to have a strong Harriet Vane appearance. Sayers seems worth at least one more shot. I like this sort of thing and there aren’t many playing at this level in the game.