We All Have to Review It Sometime: ‘Strong Poison’

Strong Poison

Strong Poison

Dorothy L Sayers

Gollancz, 1930

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.

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An Appreciation of ‘An Appreciation’; or Criticising Christie

Barnard

A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie

Robert Barnard

Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980

Literary criticism, in theory at least, is not concerned with criticism, but rather shedding new light on a subject. Crime writer Robert Barnard takes this idea and runs with it. He acknowledges Christie’s flaws, then sets out in the next 30, 000 words why Agatha Christie is great. Robert Barnard likes Agatha Christie, and all he wants is to tell us about it. It is all incredibly refreshing.

But, for all this, we still learn things. The art of criticism is pointing out the obvious things that the average reader might forget, and it is in this that Barnard excels. We are reminded that, in Christie’s heyday, detective fiction was as popular as Coronation Street. A reference which ages the book a bit but, oh, for those days!

We also forget, in an age where no-one but the super-rich have servants, that Agatha Christie was a member of the middle-middle class who wrote almost exclusively about other members of the middle-middle class. And yet, despite this, her stories are universal. Her characters are sketches, and always secondary to the plot, yet Barnard reminds us that this is what makes Christie work: Miss Marple is equally evocative for an Italian grandmother or a Norwegian teenager, but in different ways. Each itineration of Marple is different, whether on stage, screen or in our minds, but because of Christie’s universality we fill in the gaps ourselves and they are all, somehow, Marple.

Christie herself isn’t studied in detail, her background – her marriages, disappearance, and Little England political views – are sketched in only to aid understanding of her novels. Because Barnard treats Christie the way Christies treats character: as secondary to the plots because Christie, in Barnard’s eyes, is all about the puzzle.

This does lead to some contentious points; the copy of An Appreciation held by Five Minute Mysteries has been extensively annotated by a previous owner who liked Christie but disliked Barnard and repeatedly made their views known. Which goes to prove that, within any genre, opinions diverge. In Barnard’s case, like many ‘cold mystery’ fans, he doesn’t like Sayers and takes the opportunity to say so at length. And this is a pity. Barnard defends Christie by pointing out that the common criticisms of her – fill-in-the-blank characters, dull writing, cardboard detectives – may be true but they don’t detract from enjoyment of the novels. He then goes on to needlessly reiterate the criticisms of Sayers that we’ve all heard before – that she’s pretentious, that she over-writes, that she was probably in love with her main character – as if they are the last word on the subject. That Sayers ‘flings around quotations like ping-pong balls’ is undoubtedly true but, like Christie’s attitude to character, this is something that adds to the charm of the novels, and pitting the two doyennes of detective fiction against each other does seem needlessly cheap when, as Barnard tells us, it was Sayers who publicly defended Christie when the public cried ‘foul!’ over the end of Ackroyd.

But it is when speaking of Christie’s writing that Barnard comes to his strengths, acknowledging criticisms and turning them into eloquent compliments. He understands that Poirot, for example, is a pretty cardboard character, but turns this into a larger point about how all Christie’s detectives are observers. With no loves or family or friends themselves, they provide a far better window onto other characters than detectives who get involved do, and it is this that raised Poirot and Marple to the level of Holmes. Christie was, first and foremost, a puzzler and entertainer, and Barnard argues persuasively that writers who try to combine a good detective story with good writing are likely to fail at both:

One might cite an analogous case from another art. The opera singer who is hailed as a “great actress” would probably be tittered off the stage at a provincial rep.”

In short, criticising Christie for not being a good writer is missing the point as she isn’t trying to be. In Barnard’s words, Roger Ackroyd is not a failed Middlemarch. Much as, in Christie, a certain sidekick is not an inferior Poirot, but instead the supreme Hastings!

But Barnard doesn’t only believe that the strength of Christie’s fiction is murder-as-puzzle, he believes murder is only the puzzle. And he can take this too far. It is true that ‘Poirot and Hastings’ as a double act is an inferior version of ‘Holmes and Watson’. It is definitely true that Hastings isn’t a very good character. But what is undeniable is that first-person narration Christie has a verve to it that many of the other stories lack, and that there’s a human side to a detective with friends that we miss when it goes. But then Barnard is probably right to say that writing and character have never been the ultimate point of Christie. Does this make her better or worse?

 

It’s difficult to say, but one thing is certain. Fifty years down the line, we still care.

 

Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

Writing Women (1): Howdunnits and Whodunnits

Magic_Wand

Magic!

One of the most refreshing things about detective fiction is the high prevalence of women within it, both inside and outside of the pages. By nature, detective fiction tends to pass the Bechedel test, even when it was written at a time when fiction generally didn’t. Think of Golden Age fiction, and there’s a good chance that you’re thinking of works by women: Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Marsh, Heyer, Orczy (creator of the first armchair detective), Highsmith, et al.  Under the name Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr was the fourth Penguin mystery author to have ten books specially released in a year: the first three were Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. And now Carr is virtually out-of-print – two of the first three are not. The detective-fiction-cum-thriller genre, the sort that characters buy in railway station bookshops, hasn’t aged well. Its books are out-of-print, its authors forgotten. You may wander into a bookshop and find a Crispin or two, but he’s an author praised for his writing not his plots.  Conan Doyle is still around – but is he? He’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes, not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the detective novelist, and there’s a key difference. But Christie, Sayers and Allingham survive. Why?

The interesting thing, that becomes clear if you go into a second-hand bookshop, is that of all the books written at the time, some date very badly (even Carr can be a culprit) and some do not. Yet, naturally, the ones that we remember are the ones that are timeless or, in the case of Sayers, ahead of their time. And of those, women dominate. Why?

There is a good rule of thumb – and, like most, it comes with an uncountable number of exceptions – which is that men write plot and women write character. It’s tempting, at this point, to start crying ‘sexist!’, but take a moment to consider it. Broadly, mystery fiction is split into two genres: the ‘whodunnits’ and the lesser-known category of ‘howdunnits’. And, though the two often merge and there are several exceptions, there’s a clear gender divide between the two.

‘Whodunnits’ are self-explanatory, and they’re what we think of when we think of traditional detective fiction, and would perhaps be better termed ‘whydunnits’. Read an Agatha Christie, or a Dorothy L Sayers, and you’ll be weighing up character’s possible motives more than their opportunity. The ideal Poirot story, as said by the character himself, is Cards on the Table: a crime without evidence, where the deduction is purely psychological. Any of the four suspects had equal chance to commit the crime but, in terms of character, only one of them would commit that crime. Marple takes this to a further extreme: essentially deductions according to Myers-Briggs types. Dorothy L Sayers has always been more of an author of novels that included crime rather than a crime novelist, but consider Whose Body. Initially, this seems like a ‘howdunnit’: an unidentified body turns up in a bathtub in the home of a couple who swear they’ve never seen the man before (a not to dissimilar beginning to The Body in the Library). But its conclusion, Lord Peter realises who the criminal by adding up all the clues till he thinks of the only person who wants to do it. The solution to ‘Gaudy Night’, meanwhile, comes from identifying the type of character and experience that would want to send poison pen letters: unthinkable in Holmes, unthinkable in Carr.

‘Howdunnits’, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite: focussing not on the murderer but on the mechanics of the crime, and are better-known as locked-room mysteries (strictly speaking subcategory). Think not just of Carr, but of Jonathan Creek, or even of Sherlock Holmes. In these, there will be a murderer but the character and motivations of the murderer are never the focus. Because the driving factor of the story is the crime itself.

the lead villain in, say,  Conan Doyle’s ‘Silver Blaze’ did it is entirely spurious. How the crime was committed takes up the entire story. The early Poe stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter – are the earliest examples of detective stories based upon mechanics. We wonder how two people are brutally murdered in a locked room, how the purloined letter is concealed. And, once you know how, there’s little pleasure in reading them again. It’s exactly the same in almost all Holmes: we wonder why there’s a Red-Headed League, what is the speckled band, what is the meaning of the Dancing Men. And, without an explanation, there’s the thrill of not knowing, the hint of the supernatural.  And, like with ghost stories, the eventual explanation always feels like something of a let-down: for the same reason that the explanation of a magic trick is never as interesting as the trick itself.

The reason why The Hound of the Baskervilles bears re-reading, why it alone is the story you connect with the name ‘Sherlock Holmes’, is because it combines both the who and the how, because you can only imagine the story working with that murderer and when you reread it you can see the clues – almost uniquely among the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s closer to Christie than it is to Carr.

And once you understand this, you understand why, generally, the best format for Sherlock Holmes was short stories. After the how? question was asked, the audience  were intrigued but didn’t have time to get bored (and bear in mind that while we call A Study in Scarlet a full-length novel now, it’s damn thin at 50,000 words and was originally published as part of an anthology). It’s also why, at the other end of the scale, the best format for Agatha Christie was full-length novels, as it gives us time to fully explore all the characters – the Poirot and Marple short stories are spurious at best.

Wikipedia defines ‘surprise ending’ as ‘a plot twist occurring near or at the conclusion of a story, an unexpected conclusion to a work of fiction that causes the audience to reevaluate the narrative or characters’, and that pretty much sums it up. The twist endings of howdunnits are the literary equivalent of pulling rabbits out of hats, and once we know how the trick was worked – and there’s seldom any way we could guess – there’s nothing more left to see. A character-based ending, on the other hand, is something that the writer has to build up to: pointing at Character X and saying ‘oh yes, it was them, what a surprise!’ doesn’t work if it could equally have been Characters Y, Z and Q. By the end of a good character-based mystery, you know that the murderer could only have been that character and not anyone else: but you’re still surprised. To go back to the example of Whose Body: with regards to the ‘howdunnit’, any explanation as to how the body got into the bathroom would make sense: but it would take a complete rewrite to change the murderer and the reason for the crime. With almost Conan Doyle or Dickson Carr, you could change the murderer’s identity completely and the story wouldn’t be affected, as it genuinely isn’t the point of the novel. A story with a twist ending works best with the suspense that comes before the trick is explained; a story that’s character based leaves you genuinely satisfied with the revelation because you knew that the signs were there.

And this is why some detective fiction survives and some doesn’t. For Sherlock Holmes the format and character survive: the man solving mysteries based on clues no-one else can perceive. The two-pence thrillers sold in railway stations haven’t disappeared, they’ve just been replaced by the next generation: still sold by Smith’s,  they can now get away with slightly more sex and slightly more violence, but people read them for the same reasons. John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery, may have gone from our shelves but his spirit lives on in Jonathan Creek.

But Dame Agatha and Lady Dorothy live on, still in print, still adapted: and it’s their stories themselves that remain, not just the lead detective or the format. Because they wrote character-based stories and those stories remain timeless. Which brings us back to gender, and explains why we have many Queens of Crime, but never yet a King.

Possibly.

(Out)Dating the Golden Age

‘Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?’

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Everyone knows what to think of when they think of the Golden Age. The Country House mystery, where beautiful socialites drop poison in cocktail glasses then play a round of croquet, and as a body is found in a locked room all are baffled until the arrival of a learned, middle aged man quoting Shakespeare and dressed in the latest of Savile Row fashions. And everyone knows that the Golden Age is long gone, outdated even at the time, and anyone sensible should lay down their copy of Poirot and pick up something gritty, preferably set in Glasgow, instead.

The first thing to notice is that the Golden Age is mythical. The Golden Age is firmly set after World War One, from which Poirot and Wimsey and England all bear the scars, but it is very rare to find any kind of reference to the Second World War, the one that completely and utterly destroyed the essence of the golden age lifestyle. The great houses were requisitioned, the socialites became farm girls. Yet so many of the novels set in the stereotypical Golden Age transpire, when you study the publication dates, to have been both written and distributed after World War Two. A contradiction?

And it is now that we have to define the Golden Age, and in doing so you realise quite how few of its supposed examples actually follow the pattern set above. We all know, deep down, that that is what the Golden Age is, just as we know that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker and cries ‘Come, Watson, the game is afoot!’. But of course he doesn’t, just as almost all of the Golden Age stories don’t fit the pattern stated above: because the setting of the Golden Age is nothing more than a means to an end.

The Golden Age, like the England it represents, is not a place or a time but a belief. In superficialities, it’s a world of butlers and maids and Cockneys, not because it’s inherently class-driven but because it’s easier when the characters can devote their lives to murder, love and intrigue without having to worry about the cooking or cleaning – note that, even the detectives we think of as the epitome of upper class, Wimsey and Poirot, are not averse to dipping their toes into the world of the lower or middle classes. The Golden Age is monochrome and everyone is white: not because the authors are racist (and anyone who thinks so should note the way bit-part characters are treated in A Caribbean Mystery and Unnatural Death) but because the Golden Age is a world where social troubles and the problems of race relations don’t exist. The Golden Age is interested in problems, interested in the way people relate to each other and these are timeless. The Golden Age is not interested in ephemeral politics because it has no reason to be, and there is no sense of time or place because the characters and stories it depicts are eternal.

This is why the ‘golden age’ novels take place in mythical times in mythical places: because they tell timeless stories of timeless characters, and it’s precisely because the setting of the Golden Age can’t intrude on this that the Golden Age setting was chosen. You could drop any of the characters in Christie (or, for that matter, Jeeves and Wooster) into any setting, anywhere, and their stories would still work: the country house is used because it provides few distractions.

And this is why, ultimately, any attempts to ‘modernise’ the Golden Age or ‘make it more relevant’ are doomed, and why those who claim that the Golden Age is outdated and/or implicitly classist / racist / sexist are missing the point entirely. The great thing about the Golden Age is that it preaches the ultimate democracy: that all people deep down are the same.