Dorothy L Sayers
Philip Boyes is dead, killed by arsenic poisoning. His former lover, Harriet Vane, takes the stand. She has motive, means and opportunity; the whole country believe her guilty. All but one man: Lord Peter Wimsey.
Strong Poison is a much-reviewed novel, especially on the blogosphere, and it’s one where everyone wants their say. It is best-well known, perhaps the greatest, of the detective love stories. It is almost certainly the first where the author has a thinly-veiled substitute of herself take the stand for the murder of a thinly-veiled substitute of her former lover. For the Wimsey books, it’s a watershed: marking the turn from slightly better-than normal whodunnits to some of the best literary fiction of their age.
‘There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.’
But all this overlooks one thing: Strong Poison is a damn good read.
At her very worst, Sayers is prentious, unreadable, and plotless. At her very best, she has a joie de vivre that’s at the heart of the Golden Age, and all the better for its utter irrelevancy to the plot:
‘This person we are going to see – has he a name?’
‘Now that you mention it, I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.’
‘Not very, perhaps, if he gives lessons in lock-picking.’
‘I mean his name’s Rumm.’
‘Oh; what is his name?’
‘Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.’
Quotes like these can seem irrelevant, but when you think closer you realise that they tell us the one great thing about the Golden-Age detective story: its complete and unshakeable belief that the world is a place within which bizarre things happen. ‘Strong Poison’ does this more than most and it revels in it. Sayers’ comedic skills are far too underrated, and her great strength is her ability to laugh straight-faced. In her hands we get scenes that would be farce in Crispin and unthinkable in Christie, and the novel sparkles for its incidental characters. The evangelical Christian reformed cockney burglar is a particular treat; also in for a kicking are spiritualism, modern art, and bigoted people in general. Sayers is criminally uncredited as a satirist, and is all the better for targeting her guns on friendly sides:
‘A person who can believe all the articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence’*
[On the reading of immoral books that everyone is mysteriously aware of the content of]: “‘The paragraphs he quoted were filthy. Positively fithy’. ‘Well, it’s a good thing we’ve all read them,’ said Wimsey. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’.”
But then, we digress.
There is one other thing that people know about Strong Poison; or rather, one character. Harriet Vane; Oxford-educated crime writer, betrayed by her lover, early feminist. It is very, very rare, almost unique, for a character so flamboyantly based on an author to work at all, let alone as well as she does in this, and it may be for one reason. Harriet Vane is not introduced as a particularly likeable figure. She’s introverted, stubbon and distant, and she is going to die within one month unless Wimsey can clear her name. It’s the seriousness of this that gives ‘Strong Poison’ its strength. And yet, for all the soppy reputation Harriet’s romance with Wimsey has, for all the clichéd nature of her saviour riding in on a white horse, the actual human relationship is played with incredible bathos:
Wimsey: ‘What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that’
Harriet: ‘Oh, are you another of them? That makes forty-seven’.
Undoubtedly, the story of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane has many faults. It forces both characters to compromise, it is based entirely on unlikely coincidence; both characters are entirely realistic about their feelings for each other and know that, really, their lives shouldn’t fit together. It’s one of the best romances in all fiction. According to this site Strong Poison was written to wind up the Wimsey books, with marriage as an ending once Dorothy had earned enough from them. Wimsey would propose; Harriet would accept; the series would end. Only, as in the best cases, the characters got out of hand. It’s an intriguing theory.
[Let’s get this one out of the way: we know that Sayers is writing at best what she knows, at worst wish-fulfilment. Like Harriet, Sayers had an affair with a writer who persuaded her to live with him on the grounds that he did not believe in marriage; she rejected her own principles for this, then he offered to marry her after all. She refused, eloquently. The (many, varied) references to what an untalented, pretentious git Philip Boyes was have a certain sting to them in consequence.]
‘But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’
‘Oh yes. So have I, if it comes to that. In fact, several. It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody’.
So, we know that Sayers is writing wish-fulfillment, but the more interesting question is how she does it. Sayers, to put it bluntly, didn’t particularly care about sex or give much significance to it. She had a husband, a lover, and a father of her son, and all of these men were different: but she never found a partner her intellectual equal. And this gives us the strength of the fantasy, if you like, in Strong Poison. Because, at its heart, the romance of Vane and Wimsey is a romance of two minds. In Strong Poison, the protagonists share barely three scenes together and it’s a triumph to Sayers’s writing that the stories, and the characters, are so real for all this.
We can blame Strong Poison for a lot. The ‘should-the-detective-have-family’ issue comes up a lot, and on the whole the answer is ‘no’; what you end up with is novels not detective stories. This is ultimately true of most of the stories featuring Harriet Vane, the apex being ‘Gaudy Night’; Sayers gets so interested in her characters she forgets her plot. And the classic Sayers works of detective fiction – ‘Whose Body’, ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’ and ‘Murder Must Advertise’ are all straight-up detective stories with a characterless lead. And ‘Strong Poison’ is the only good work of Sayers that combines romance with a very good detective story.
But then, the truly terrible works of Sayers, the unreadable or anodyne – Five Red Herrings, Clouds of Witness, The Nine Tailors** – don’t feature Harriet Vane at all. Sayers’ strength, in all honesty, was not always detective fiction and she could become very pretentious at times and / or go off on a bit of a polemical tangent.
‘Harriet Vane’s got the bug all these damned women have, fancy they can do things’
This is particularly true in the portrayal of Philip Boyes here: not only a bounder and a cad, but also a prig and a hypocrite, a pretentious prat who thought he was a genius but really was mediocre, lives off his relatives, resents the success of his more talented partner, and generally would deserve a kick up the backside were he still alive. This is not to say that all this was not true of the real-life John Cournos, it’s not really possible to comment, but while authors putting people who have wronged them into fiction might well be cathartic, it seldom leads to a balanced portrayal of character.
But then, Sayers’s strength never was detective fiction; she wrote exceptionally good detective novels, with emphasis on the novel side. So, how does ‘Strong Poison’ stand up as a detective novel? Not too badly. It essentially has one suspect, but somehow you never do read it fully knowing which is the guilty party, even though all is revealed four full chapters from the end. Because it doesn’t matter, because you care enough for Wimsey’s quest to save Harriet. For all that, it is more of a howdunnit than a who, and more of a psychological exploration than anything else. Yet, unlike her successors, Sayers does this, and polemicism, very, very, well.
‘Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have’
Because, quite often, Sayers’s observations of people and the world were entirely right. And Strong Poison, despite all the praises and the criticism, retains one undisputable characteristic: it’s a marvellous read.
* Sayers, a woman of many talents, moonlighted as a theologian and Christian apologist.
** De gustibus non est disputandum.