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‘In Dorothy L Sayers’ novels, I found the sort of main character I loved when I turned to fiction: someone with a ‘real’ life, someone who wasn’t just a hero who conveniently had no relations to mess up the novelist’s plot.’

That quote comes from Elizabeth George’s introduction to the Hodder reissue of ‘Strong Posion’. It describes one of my favourite things about the first novel in the loosely linked ‘Vane and Wimsey’ trilogy (‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have His Carcase’ and ‘Gaudy Night’), that exists within Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

Sayer’s detective, Lord Peter Whimsey, is not the isolated, alcholic loner who populates so many modern detective novels. Instead, he is a personable character who is intimately connected to many people who care deeply about him. In ‘Strong Posion’ we see him interact with friends, family, an ex-grilfriend, his devoted secretary and Harriet Vane, the women he has decided to save from the noose. This is so refreshing, coming in an age when every male detective character seems to have a divorce and a dependancy on alcohol, which keeps them emotionally cut off from the rest of the world. I mean, I really enjoy reading about Ian Rankin’s Rebus and detectives of that kind, but I also enjoy diversity of approach.

These interactions between Wimsey and others aren’t just there to increase the reader’s interest in Sayer’s detective, they also perform a useful drammatic function for anyone who has been cajoled decided to start by reading ‘Strong Poison’ instead of begining at the very begining, with the first novel in the Wimsey chronology, ‘Whose Body?’. As the novel progresses and Peter Wimsey interacts with all the people from his past, the reader picks up fleeting, but important clues about his past and his personality, which come together to create a fuller, more interesting picture of his character.

This is much more subtle than Sayers including an info dump about his character at the begining of the book, in order to remind returning readers what they know about Sayer’s detective and give new readers all the information that they need. Wimsey’s character and past experiences are teased out gradually and although the reader doesn’t know everything about him by the end of this novel they can make some informed guesses about the detective’s current emotional state, how he came to be the man he is and the ways in which he is trying to develop. This method of character creation works for me, because I like characters with a bit of mystery and I find picking up clues that show how a person works, or how they came to be who they are, much easier than spotting author signposts to the solution of a mystery. The little touches were more than enough for me to build a version of Wimsey in my head.

For anyone who wants more information about , a short biographical study of his past, is included at the back of this edition. This will answer any questions the reader might have about Wimsey’s past. I really appreciated that this biography, written by his kindly mentor, came at the end of the novel, because that meant I got to form my own impressions about Peter Wimsey, from the hints dotted through the text, but I did also enjoy having some things about his life clarified, before I began ‘Have His Carcase’. An author can help readers really gain more from a book by including lots of revealing, pertinent, well written information about their characters , but often readers can make do with incredibly small amounts of information. Sayers allows her readers the best of both approaches in ‘Strong Poison’.

I’ve established that I’m the kind of reader who enjoys using small, almost throwaway clues about a character to create my idea of who these people are. I’m also the kind of reader who enjoys finding small, fleeting moments in novels that may have no real wider plot significance, but could easily begin a whole world of new stories by themselves. A glance as two people walk down a corrider, the touch of a hand that is never discussed, the worried look that crosses someone’s face. ‘Strong Poison’ provides plenty of these tiny and simple moments, which encouraged me to harbour strong feelings about characters and their relationships.

My absolute favourite has to be this short snippets of a conversation between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, when he visits her in prison:

‘ ‘Any minor alterations, like parting the old mane, or growing a toothbrush, or cashiering the eye-glas, you know, I shoudl be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas.’

‘Don’t,’ said Miss Vane, ‘please don’t alter yourself in any particular.’
‘You really mean that?’ Wimsey flushed a little.’

Here the reader gets a glimpse of the vulnerable person behind all the cheerful, but cynical bustle that Wimsey puts out for most of the book. How could I not fall for a character who is so pleased and a little undone, by words which suggest someone will take him exactly as he is? For me, there’s a wealth of emotion in that last line and Wimsey’s flushed response. Romance is the only option for these characters now. Don’t fail me Dorothy L Sayers.

‘Have His Carcase’ has been conquered1 since I read ‘Strong Poison’, so there’s only what everyone describes as the unadulterated pleasure of ‘Gaudy Night’ left for me to read, before I start looking into the rest of Sayer’s novels. Will this linked trilogy end happily for me? Who knows! 2

1And I mean conquered. Sadly its mystery was not for me, in fact the ending convinced me that it wasn’t for Sayers either and by the end of the novel she had bugged herself so much that she had her characters throw up their hands in sympathy with her predicament.

2 Blatantly teases Ana.

Other Posts

Thoughts on Strong Poison – Dorothy L Sayers (Part One)


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Date: 2012-01-26 03:18 am (UTC)
brownbetty: (Default)
From: [personal profile] brownbetty
Apparently in her life Sayers received a lot of very snide criticism for basically writing herself into her novels as her protagonist's love-interest: “Oooh, she's a lady mystery-novel writer!” which just makes me want to go back in time in order to punch people in the face.

Date: 2012-01-26 03:06 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
From now on I'm going to use your post to try to sway any of those pesky "you must ALWAYS begin at the beginning" people *coughCHRIScough* ;)

Gaudy Night is all about the small moments with a wealth of emotion behind them. YOU'LL SEE :D

Date: 2012-01-26 07:23 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I'm mostly a purist, too, so my comment was about this series in particular. The only other one I can think of is Discworld, which Chris also insists in trying to read in publication order. A HORRIBLE idea, in my not so humble opinion :P

Date: 2012-01-30 08:09 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Yes! I cry inside every time someone tells me they gave up after The Colour of Magic and don't get what all the fuss is about. I think the Rincewind novels are his weakest, and they're SO not representative of all the reasons why I love him.


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