Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Strong Poison: Dorothy Sayers

It seems that readers are divided on Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey series; they either love her writing or they strongly dislike it. Although I have considered myself a fan of Sayers' crime fiction, when I reread some of the books in recent years I did not like them nearly as well. I am not sure why, but I would categorize myself now as middle of the road regarding her books.

Lord Peter Wimsey is a British gentleman detective, the younger son of an aristocratic family. His hobby is investigating crimes and collecting first editions and incunabula (books printed before 1501). He works at times with Chief-Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard and Mervyn Bunter, his sometimes cranky manservant.

My motivation to reread Strong Poison peaked when I purchased a copy of Haunted Honeymoon (this is the US title of the film), the 1940 film adaptation of Busman's Honeymoon. I thought that the first book that Harriet appears in would work well as a re-introduction to the Peter / Harriet books. I was right, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Both Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night are much longer books than Strong Poison, and Gaudy Night places much more emphasis on characters than the mystery, which is fine but not what I was looking for. The advantage of those two later books are that Harriet and Peter work together in the detection, whereas in this one Harriet isn't available and they don't even have too many scenes together. Of course, if you haven't read any of them, you should read this one first for sure.

Harriet Vane has been accused of murder; Peter has been following her trial and does not believe that she is guilty. The first trial has a hung jury, so a new trial begins. From my point of view, the evidence is all circumstantial and I don't see how it gets as far as it does, but I don't understand the legalities involved. The reason Harriet is the prime (indeed, really the only) suspect is that she had written a book using the same method of poisoning to kill the victim, and she had acquired arsenic as research for her book. So she can be proved to have some of the necessary poison. The victim was also her lover and they had a bitter break up earlier, so there is the motive. In addition to having a strong belief in Harriet's innocence, Lord Peter has fallen in love with her. So he sets out to find out who really did the deed.

I relished this book because it featured so many characters that I have liked in the series. The Dowager Duchess (Lord Peter's mother), Chief-Inspector Parker (who has been dithering over getting serious about Peter's sister because he thought he wasn't good enough for the family), and Bunter, who feels a bit threatened by Peter's attraction to Harriet. Miss Climpson gets a very good role, helping out tremendously in gathering evidence. Another very strong point in its favor is Harriet’s reaction to Peter’s proposal while she is in jail. It is priceless.

Strong Poison, while shorter than the next two Peter / Harriet books, was still a bit long and I would have liked to see the investigation (or the telling of it) move a bit faster, but it was worth it in the end. I am pretty sure this book is different from most others in the series in that Lord Peter has to sit on the sidelines and direct others in doing jobs for him to work towards clearing Harriet. I look forward to reading Busman's Honeymoon soon, even though I have now discovered that it too is a bit on the longish side.

Check these posts for more detail on the plot and characters and other views: at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., Carol's Notebook, RogerBW's Blog, Reactions to Reading, My Reader's Block, Clothes in Books, and Lady Business.


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Publisher:  Avon Books, 1967 (orig. publ. 1930).
Length:      192 pages (of very tiny print)
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Peter Wimsey, #6
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copies.


24 comments:

  1. Several years ago I'd not read any LPW books at all so someone who knew suggested I start with Strong Poison and read the Harriet Vane stories first. Which is what I did, though I haven't read the last one, Busman's Honeymoon yet. I've since gone back and read a couple of the earlier ones and enjoyed those too. I agree about the length of some of them, a tiny bit more consiseness would not have harmed. DLS is definitely one of my favourite authors now though and I'm pleased I still have a few left to read.

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    1. I think Strong Poison is a great book to start with, Cath, and I am glad you have enjoyed the ones you have read. I have several I still want to reread. The top one is Murder Must Advertise.

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  2. Ok, testing this out.

    I LOVED this book because the characters were what made it a fun read. Unfortunately, I stopped reading the second book multiple times and yes it is longish. Not that it's bad or anything but I do think that the author is a bit verbose. It's still funny and I still love the interactions between Harriet and Peter but will try to give it a read much, much later. So glad you enjoyed it! Keishon

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    1. I am glad you are now able to comment, Keishon. The next Harriet and Peter book, Have His Carcase, is another one I want to reread, because it has both of them, but I think the plot can be tedious plus already knowing how it ends (sort of) can take some fun away. But I am sure I will get to it.

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  3. Thank you, Tracy, for the kind link. I think you do have a good point about Sayers' novels. Most people either like them very much, or dislike them at least as much. This one is a little different to the rest of her work, and I think you're right that part of it is the role Wimsey plays (or doesn't) in the story. I'm glad you found things to like about it.

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    1. I was pleased to use your post, Margot. It has some great quotes from the book. I hope I enjoy Busman's Honeymoon as much as I did this one.

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  4. I read these books when I was a youngster and loved them. I think some people dislike the snobbery of Wimsey and Sayers herself. I also enjoyed the TV dramatisations. You can see some on You Tube if you're interested https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xit4ZIu5VOM

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    1. I like the TV dramas also, Katrina. We have both of the series but it has been so long since we watched them, I could watch them again.

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  5. Thi si s probably the best of them, but I tend to prefer the Lord Peter books without Vane - not because of her but because the pace, as you say, did seem to slow to a crawl in her stories!

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    1. I need to try another early one, Sergio. One I remember being disappointed with on a reread was Clouds of Witness, and I thought I loved it the first time. Oh well. I never know what affects my reading at times.

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  6. Hi Tracy, I work for novelist Rich Leder and wondered what your policy was on review submissions. I'd love to connect with you for a review of his mystery series at caseyvauch@gmail.com.

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    1. Casey, Thanks for inquiring, but I very seldom review books supplied by the author or publisher.

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  7. Not sure why, Tracy, but I have not read any Sayers--yet. You're piquing my interest!

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    1. I am glad you are interested in books by Sayers, Mathew. Readers are divided, but I think that Sayers is an author worth reading, just to see what you think. Of course, none of us can ever read all of the books and authors that we want to.

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  8. Not one of my favorites, Tracy. But then I was never a fan of Harriet Vane. I never liked how she treated Wimsey. HOWEVER, I did enjoy listening to the audio of BUSMAN'S HOLIDAY. If you get a chance to listen to it, please do so. It's the one Wimsey and Harriet on their honeymoon right? Not much of a mystery, but so much else about it is delightful.

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    1. But then I was never a fan of Harriet Vane.

      She's a character I just can't warm to at all. In fact I dislike her quite a bit. And Wimsey becomes a much less interesting character when Harriet's around.

      The Wimsey books without Harriet Vane are generally pretty good. I'd rate Sayers as a sometimes entertaining writer of the second rank.

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    2. I have never "read" an audio book, Yvette, but if I get the chance, I will give that one a try. Sometimes I think my reaction to a book is based on my mood when I read it.

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    3. I do find it interesting the vastly differing opinions on Sayers books and why readers like or dislike the books, dfordoom. And some readers, like me, find they react differently when they reread the books later.

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    4. I do find it interesting the vastly differing opinions on Sayers books and why readers like or dislike the books

      I like my detective fiction fairly "pure" - I want a good solid mystery without too much extraneous stuff. I don't mind a hint of romance but I don't want a romance sub-plot that slows things down and distracts from the mystery. I don't mind some humour but I don't want lengthy interludes of comic relief. I don't want social commentary at all. Most of all I don't want a detective story author to start trying to write "literary" fiction since it usually ends badly with the mystery shunted off to the side (which I think happened in Gaudy Night).

      I don't think detective fiction is literature and it shouldn't try to be. Genre fiction and literature have quite different rules. Both are worthy of respect but they're very different animals.

      Of course all that is purely personal taste and personal opinion.

      I think Sayers was a fine writer of detective fiction when she stuck to writing "pure" detective fiction. When she tried to do more than that I think she lost her focus. But I still love the best of her detective novels.

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    5. Thanks for that response, dfordoom. I am less focused on the mystery element but I do read mostly crime fiction and very very little literary fiction. (Some fantasy, some science fiction, but even in those genres I prefer a mystery included in the story.) I just read Mildred Pierce and I really, really missed the mystery plot. A good book but not as fascinating as a mystery. I don't care if I can solve the mystery, but I do like trying to solve it.

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  9. Tracy, I have never read Sayers. However, I do like reading about British detectives, spies and secret agents, and so I will definitely try and read one of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

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    1. Prashant, I hope you do find one of the Lord Peter novels to try. and let us know how you liked it.

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  10. Thanks for the shoutout Tracy - I love this book, it is one of my favourite by Sayers - certainly for the crime element. I love the section where Miss Climpson stages the fake séances to get hold of the missing will....
    Sayers did get more verbose as she went on - this one has a good balance I think.

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    1. If I could read twice as fast (or had more available reading time) I would read more of the Wimsey books sooner and compare pre- and post-Harriet books, Moira. All the varying viewpoints are motivating me to reread more of them.

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