After two references on a podcast that I recently discovered and love, Shedunnit, and a reading lifetime of hearing Dorothy L. Sayers’ name paired with Agatha Christie’s as one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I finally picked up one of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries: Strong Poison. In this outing, Wimsey comes to the rescue of Harriet Vane, who will eventually become is wife, after she is accused of murdering her lover.
Strong Poison begins with the lengthy summary of the case by the judge. Every point in Harriet’s favor is balanced by some damning piece of evidence. Harriet and her lover had been living in sin…but she left him and refused his belated marriage proposals. There’s no evidence that she actually poisoned him…but she had been researching a new mystery potboiler about arsenic poisoning. And so it goes, for pages. Only towards the end of the judge’s instructions does the perspective pull back a little to reveal that gentleman-detective, Peter Wimsey, is in the audience. When the jury comes back, unable to reach a verdict, Wimsey springs into action to find out who really done it.
Strong Poison has the major hallmarks of classic detective fiction: bizarrely complicated murder method and an over-talented detective. Wimsey has flashes of insight that I recognize from reading Poirot, Holmes, and other stories. His insights are fueled by clues collected by almost an army of assistants. I loved the women from the “Cattery,” a Wimsey-funded typing agency that doubles as a pool of potential spies when Wimsey needs a woman in the inside. These talented ladies get very excited when they’re asked to take part in Wimsey’s cases. Not are these women wonderful moles, they’re also fantastic when it comes to taking the initiative to move the case forward. One of these women goes so far as to brilliantly stage a series of séances to find information. Wimsey is good at rewarding his allies, although he’s the one with the reputation for being a great detective.
Two things bothered me about Strong Poison. One of these is probably an artifact of the book’s time period. Harriet faces repeated proposals from men—including Wimsey, in several cringe-inducing scenes—who refuse to take “no” for an answer. Harriet is badgered so often that I was frequently angry on her behalf. Readers at the time no-doubt thought it was romantic that Wimsey kept proposing. Wimsey would have been a perfect white knight. Now, however, Wimsey looks like a man who uses his reputation as a good man to brow-beat a strong woman into capitulating. The other thing was more a matter of personal taste. The more Wimsey talked with his Balliol-educated literary references and calculating patter, the more I wished he would just be quiet. I can’t imagine how his chatter worked in the movie versions of his stories. He made me tired even though I was just reading his dialogue.
Once I finished the novel, I had to wonder why Sayers had such a reputation. Sure her detective is a genius and the solution was fiendishly complex, but Strong Poison just made me more aware of the flaws of classic detective fiction: sexism, implausibility, concealment of critical clues. I had to keep reminding myself that, although this book wouldn’t get published now, it was a pioneer at its publication in 1930. Elements might seem like clichés now, but they weren’t at the time. All that said, I don’t think I’ll read another book by Sayers. I’ll stick with Christie.