Friday, November 10, 2006

Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers

Yes, I’m still reading Dorothy Sayers. To make this less painful for you guys, I decided to review together the books where Harriet Vane makes an appearance. While I adore all of Sayers’ mysteries, those dealing with the developing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey are my favorite. Sayers writes incredible dialogue, and the repartee between them is witty, combative, and full of literary allusions. Reading it makes my eyes gleam. A book is nothing without good dialogue.

The Wimsey-Vane mysteries work wonderfully as romances of the intellect. Indeed, one character describes Harriet and Peter’s relationship as “a marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences…reckless to the point of insanity.” I always liked that. Anyway, I’m trying to keep this short, so on to the reviews!

Title: Strong Poison
Author: Dorothy Sayers

“But, however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance? It seems probable – ”

“And if you can quote
Kai Lung, we should certainly get on together.”

“It seems very probable that I shall not survive to make the experiment.”

Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. Both were authors – Harriet of financially successful mystery novels, and Philip of pretentious, misunderstood works of genius (*snort*). Luckily, Philip is dead at the beginning of the novel, so his whiny nonsense is kept to a minimum. It’s also fortunate because amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey sees Harriet Vane at her trial, and falls madly – though perhaps not wisely – in love with her.

Harriet’s trial results in a hung jury. But everyone knows Vane is guilty as sin and will be condemned during the next session. With only one month to investigate the case, Lord Peter visits the prisoner in jail and informs her that he intends to prove her innocence – and then marry her.

Harriet replies rather huffily that she will gladly accept his detecting assistance. But marriage is certainly out of the question, thank you very much.

Thus commences one of my favorite literary romances, and a good place to start reading Dorothy Sayers. Will Lord Peter save his beloved? Did the miserable ass Philip Boyes commit suicide, or did someone actually have reason to do away with him? And will Peter ever convince Harriet to say ‘yes’?

Strong Poison is an example of Sayers’ earlier writing. The plot is a straightforward jigsaw puzzle to be solved, it’s relatively short, and although dark emotions are hinted at, they’re not the primary subject of the novel. Harriet herself is actually something of a background character. But its very simplicity makes it an excellent introduction to many of the secondary characters –including Bunter and Miss Climpson – and gives you a good taste of Sayers’ writing. You may not be “wowed!” at the end of it, but keep reading if you can stomach it, because things only get better.

posted by Elizabeth at 7:32 PM


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