Pretty much everything here originally appeared at my actual blog: By Singing Light. I particularly focus on upper middle-grade and young adult books. I also enjoy adult genre books, especially speculative fiction.
The triumphant return of reading notes! This month, I plan to re-read and talk about four mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. Specifically, those which feature both Harriet Vane & Lord Peter Wimsey, since Harriet + Peter = otp forever. As always, these posts may (will!) contain massive spoilers so beware if you wish to avoid them.
Strong Poison is the fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and the first to feature Peter’s love interest and eventual wife, Harriet Vane. As the book opens, Harriet is accused of the murder of an ex-lover, Philip Boyes, and it’s up to Peter to prove her innocence and save her life.
I have strong feelings about Harriet Vane which are: HARRIET IS THE BEST AND I LOVE HER FOREVER. She is actually one of my all-time favorite heroines/main characters and have said on the record that I aspire to be part Harriet, part Tiffany Aching, with maybe a dash of Miss Marple and Sophie Hatter thrown in.
So, it’s somewhat odd to remember that when I first read Strong Poison, I actually felt fairly resentful of Harriet. Here she was, not appreciating Lord Peter! Refusing to marry him, which I both understood and found very frustrating! Partly, I was 19 at the time, and partly I had not read Gaudy Night, which is a perfect book full of perfection which I would not change or alter in any way.
And the more I’ve read and re-read Strong Poison, the more I’ve come to appreciate Harriet’s choices in that book. There’s a certain narrative set up that implies she will swoon gratefully at Peter’s feet, accepting his embrace and adoring him forever. But then she doesn’t. She refuses his offer of marriage and the book ends with them separated, with Harriet surrounded by her female friends & supporters.
Harriet refuses narrative inevitability. She refuses loss of integrity (in fact, this fits very well with her refusal to marry Philip Boyes when it becomes clear that his offer of marriage is in the nature of a prize for passing a test). She refuses to lose herself in Peter which, because he is still himself a character in flux, she is quite right in thinking she would. And in doing so, she allows the growth of real love, passion, and respect between the two of them.
So, having written a several hundred word paean to Harriet Vane (<3 <3 <3), the actual book is also one of my favorites to re-read. It’s on the slim side, as Sayers’s earlier LPW books all are. And the mystery itself is complex and ingenious.
The judge’s speech at the beginning of the book is a marvelous example of how to write a character without agreeing with them, and who the narrative will totally disprove, and who you want and expect the readership to disagree with and dislike. I always finish that section by, quite frankly, wanting to bop him on the nose.
I also love the way Sayers plays with expectations in the person of the “elderly spinster” One assumes she will disapprove of the worldly and immoral Miss Vane, but then she marvelously turns out to be the stubborn and conscientious Miss Climpson! Who saves Harriet by refusing to accept a guilty verdict when she doesn’t believe it! Hurrah Miss Climpson!
In both of these cases–and in fact throughout the book–Sayers’s facility of description is on display. She paints a vivid image of people and scenes in a few sentences and a scattering of dialogue. And here she has not only Peter & Harriet (who converse largely in quotations and allusions) but Miss Climpson, Bill Rumm, the artistic sets Harriet & Philip Boyes were involved in. There’s a sense both of deep understanding and a quick sketch.
But at the same time, Sayers does have her blind spots and I can’t ignore the fact that the way the Jewish characters in this book are talked about was really gross–the more so perhaps because of real-life situations at the moment. For someone who is normally so generously understanding of her character, it’s all the more glaring. Regardless of whether Sayers herself was anti-Semitic, the words on the page are. And while I love this book forever, it also forever has that asterisk.
On the plus side, the treatment of the female characters is thoughtful and nuanced. Sayers was very concerned, both within and outside of her fiction, with questions of women & and their place in the world. We see that here, in Harriet’s refusal to be treated as an object, either by Philip Boyes or by Peter Wimsey, as well as in Miss Climpson and her Bureau–which basically exists to take down men attempting to prey on vulnerable women. And as well, in a different light, in the fact that Peter himself does see women as people, accepting them on their own terms (as in the case of Eiluned and the tea kettle). This was for me, one of his nicest and most human points in this book.
In Strong Poison, as opposed to Have His Carcase, which I’ll talk about next week, the mystery is at the service of the romance. And I want to end by talking about this. I love Harriet and Peter separately, but I love them maybe even more in their relationship with each other.
In large part this is because, as Sayers herself said, it isn’t until Peter falls in love with Harriet (immediately, desperately, hopelessly, and yet not entirely egotistically) that he turns into a real person. In the earlier books, he is the pattern of a gentleman detective, flying in from America to save his brother at trial, just to pick one example. But Harriet (I like to imagine) was always too much herself to allow him to remain a monocled cliche. And so he becomes “a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.” (quotation from the essay above)
And so, necessarily within Strong Poison, there is a sense of alteration, of the world unmade and remade. Of yourself unmade and remade. When an old friend asks Peter not to change, he feels, “for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of the triumph of mutability…Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again.” (Strong Poison, Chapter 8) On the one hand, he is being transformed into something arguably better; on the other hand, he is necessarily leaving past foolishnesses behind (and finding a new set, to be fair).
So, Strong Poison does not end in lovers’ meeting–not yet, at any rate. But Sayers, by writing a story which shows the main characters within it as real people, by resisting the easy ending that she might have written, has begun to turn her detective stories–wonderful but trope-filled–into something else, both harder and more beautiful.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1930, adult mystery