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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.

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


The Sleepless Reader
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‘You know, I am sure, that it is a great principle of English law that every accused person is held to be innocent unless and until he is proved otherwise. It is not necessary for him, or her, to prove innocence; it is, in the modern slang phrase, “up to” the Crown to prove guilt, and unless you are quite satisfied that the Crown has done this beyond all reasonable doubt, it is your job to return a verdict of “Not guilty”. That does not necessarily mean that the prisoner has established her innocence by proof; it simply means that the Crown has failed to produce in your minds an undoubted conviction of her guilt.’

This little gem comes from the first few pages of ‘Strong Poison’ by Dorothy L Sayers. A judge is summing up the case against Harriet Vane, celebrated mystery writer, who stands accused of murdering her partner Philip Boyes, with arsenic. Most of the first chapter of ‘Strong Poison’ is taken up by this lengthy summation and it is full of the same kind of little, directive hints to the jury that can be found in the paragraph above. He begins by using the universal 1 male pronoun in his explanation of reasonable doubt, but eventually slips into using the female pronoun. When he starts making this point, he is providing a purely theoretical explanation about the missing link between reasonable doubt and innocence, but he ends by relating this rule directly to the case in front of the jury. His attempt to direct the jury towards a guilty verdict is quite slimily skilful.

Let me highlight another portion of his speech:

‘Now you may feel, and quite properly, that this was a very wrong thing to do. You may, after making all allowances for this young woman’s unprotected position, still feel that she was a person of unstable moral character. You will not be led away by the false glamour which certain writers contrive to throw about “free love” into thinking that this was anything but a vulgar act of misbehaviour.’

This pointed comment about Harriet’s morality, comes just after he reminds the jury that Harriet Vane lived with Philip Boyes outside of wedlock. This fact is irrelevant to the case: wives aren’t immune to murderous impulses and as the judge eventually admits the jury must not give too much weight to the idea that ‘one step on the path to wrong-doing makes the next one easier’. However, the simple fact that he spends so much time dwelling on what he sees as the immorality of Harriet’s decision to live with a man, who wasn’t her husband, when it has no factual bearing on the case, is extremely illuminating. The prejudices that existed against unmarried, sexually active young women in the 1920s are clearly marked out by the inclusion of this paragraph.

The judge is a little blunt when he makes these statements about Harriet’s moral character, but he attempts to advance his agenda with more subtlety in other portions of his speech. He carefully reiterates all the factors in the case that seem to cast doubt on Harriet’s guilt, with a view to emphasising how easily these areas of the case for the defence may be dismissed. The reader learns that Boyes had offered to marry Harriet before his death, a fact which the defence seems to have used to argue that there was no cause for antagonism between the pair. Oh, says the judge after he reminds the jury of this fact, ‘It would be natural for you to think this proposal of marriage takes away any suggestion that the prisoner had a cause of grievance against Boyes’2, but... He is always very careful to ruminate on the problems with the defence’s theories at length. In all fairness to him, he also discusses the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, but the weight of his speech seems to be made up of a strenuous take down of Harriet’s character and defence.

As he follows up his explanation of why the natural supposition that marriage mends all problems, might be incorrect in this case, he encourages the jury to empathise with Harriet, in a move which seems designed to cloak his biased guidance in an appearance of sympathetic fairness. He encourages the jury to ‘put yourself in her place and understand her point of view’. He’s quick to add a sneaky ‘if you can’ to that request, just to remind the jury how hard that will be for any upstanding citizen, as Harriet’s views must appear far from normal to anyone of good character. He quietly encourages the jury to remain distant from Harriet, by reminding them how other she is from them and how little they should want to be able to empathise with her, even while outwardly directing them to do just the opposite. Despite despising the intent behind such an argument, I’ve got to admit it is neatly crafted and well designed by the judge to persuade jurors who may share the same moral outlook as he does.

Despite the judge’s clear bias against the young woman in the dock and her chosen lifestyle, the way this piece of extended rhetoric is written absolutely charmed me and made me plunge through ‘Strong Poison’ in a matter of days. Why did I like this speech quite so much, considering that Sayers judge is clearly trying to persuade the jury that immoral, book writing Harriet would look so much more decorative at the end of a rope? Well, firstly I was impressed that Sayers had found a plausible way to feed the reader all the details of Harriet’s case quickly and efficiently, as well as many details of her background. After reading other writers try to include large amounts of necessary exposition, I’m aware that it takes a real grasp of craft to keep all the information the reader needs to have from toppling out in an unnatural, stilted manner.

What I like the most though is Sayers masterfully creation of a judge with realistic mainstream views for the period, who uses his knowledge of people and rhetoric to his own advantage, who she then uses to sabotage himself. The man practically draws big red circles around his bias and the flimsy areas of the prosecution’s case, so that the reader can easily sift through the case themselves and examine the evidence and the prejudice, without having to rely on one character’s interpretation. Even without the critical asides from other characters, like Salcombe Hardy, a journalist covering the trail, who writes a note to his colleague saying ‘Judge hostile.’, the reader is provided with all the context they need to interrogate how impartial this judge actually is and how sound of the case may really be, once you get past his own socially influenced spin on events. Whether the reader chooses to use what this speech gives them in order to construe the case in a way that establishes Harriet as a wronged woman who has been accused of murder purely because of circumstantial evidence, may still depend on their own moral code, but the reading is there to be had.

As I followed Lord Peter Wimsey around town on his mission to clear Harriet’s name, there was always a little voice in the back of my head reminding me about this judge’s unfair, biased presentation of the case. If ever I found myself doubting Harriet, or drifting into lazy thinking about the reasons a woman might kill, I was reminded of just how flimsy the case was against her, just how much of a part societal biases played in establishing her as a suspect and I renewed my faith in her innocence. I remembered that while crimes of passion do happen and a lovers tiff provides an apparently compelling motive for murder, the most important thing in a legal case against that lover should be cold, hard evidence. What an appropriate lesson to take from one of the queens of the detective genre.

I’ve spent quite a long time talking about those first pages (sorry seem to be making a bit of a habit of that at the moment) and this seems like a comfortable place to stop, but there’s so much more I want to talk about. Shall we meet again next week for more on my feelings about ‘Strong Poison’?

1 Imagine me rolling my eyes like a cow here.

2 Of course every girl is just so happy to be able to throw her bouquet finally!

Part Two


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