Dorothy L. Sayers: Strong Poison

 : “Except that the girl’s innocent.”

Things are not going well at Harriet Vane’s trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes – hearing the judge’s summation, only the most unrealistic of minds could conclude that she is not guilty as charged.

One such mind, however, is that of Lord Peter Wimsey – the same Lord Peter who, normally a beacon of logic, unfailingly unspins the web of every criminal intrigue to which he brings to bear his intellectual powers, but who now, epitome of a bachelor that he has heretofore been, without so much as ever having personally met Harriet, is dead-set on marrying her. So when he tells his old friend (and soon-to-be brother in law) Chief Inspector Parker, who was in charge of the investigation, that Parker has made a mistake, the policeman is unsettled; despite the water-tight case he feels he has put together. “Where is the flaw?” he inquires gingerly. “There isn’t one,” Wimsey retorts. “Except that the girl’s innocent.”

Thus, the scene is set for the first entry in Sayers’s Wimsey-Vane canon. And while Harriet is pining away in prison, dreading a jury verdict which, she feels, can only be delayed, not avoided entirely, and not entirely sure how to deal with the sudden attentions of a well-known member of the nobility, Wimsey busies himself with the search for Boyes’s true murderer; whom he eventually finds with the help of his confidante Miss Climpson (whose presence in the jury box, unbeknownst to Harriet, has already proved instrumental in producing a hung jury despite the judge’s damning summation) and her assistant, Miss Murchison; both of which ladies, while perfectly honorable, do not shrink from unconvential methods when called for in the pursuit of justice.

Harriet Vane is the thinly veiled alter ego of Dorothy Sayers herself, who, having created her “ideal man” in Lord Peter Wimsey, now proceeded to write herself into the series, thus exercising the novelist’s privilege in making come true in fiction what has been denied them in their own life. Indeed, it is not only Harriet’s character who is inspired by real life: so, too, is the man she is accused of having killed, who in turn is based on Dorothy Sayers’s former lover, American novelist John Cournos, from whom Sayers separated over precisely the issue that, in the book, also leads to the break-up of Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes; namely, his wish for her to live together with him without being married. Significantly, while Sayers stuck to her denial and Cournos was ultimately the one to leave her, in the book Harriet Vane ultimately gives in to Boyes’s insistence, and it is ultimately she who leaves him when he does offer her his hand in marriage after all, as she feels he has made a fool of her: It is anybody’s guess, of course, whether the woman pulling out of the relationship is again Sayers playing “catch up” in fiction for what had not happened in real life. Certainly, too, it does not seem terribly far-fetched to see Boyes’s death – whether or not at Harriet’s hands – as Cournos getting his just deserts in Sayers’s mind: The correspondence between the two novelists, contained in the first volume of Dorothy Sayers’s letters (edited by Barbara Reynolds) reveals just how passionately Sayers felt about their separation.

Thankfully, however, Sayers was way too good a novelist to merely live out in fiction what was denied her in real life: Harriet Vane is a well-rounded character and Lord Peter’s equal in every respect, and it is precisely this (in addition to the fact that, unlike the women he seems to have predominantly met so far, she does not – at least not visibly – weaken at the knees at the mere sight of him) which makes their relationship work. Sayers was also intelligent enough not to make Harriet herself a very easygoing character. “I imagine you come across a number of people who are disconcerted by the difference between what you do feel and what they fancy you ought to feel. It is fatal to pay the smallest attention to them,” a well-meaning teacher tells Harriet in the third Wimsey-Vane book, Gaudy Night: “Detachment is a rare virtue, and vey few people find it lovable … If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it – still more, because of it – that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself.” The aforementioned comments are the teacher’s comments on Harriet’s proud response to being questioned for choosing to continue to publish novels (mysteries, at that) despite her own near-fatal brush with the criminal justice system: “I know what you’re thinking – that anybody with proper sensitive feelings would rather scrub floors for a living. But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well. I don’t see why proper feelings should prevent me from doing my proper job.” And as Wimsey will have to learn, not even saving her from the gallows is going to win her hand, because marrying him for that reason would be marrying him for gratitude, not love, and that is something Harriet would never do.


Favorite Quotes:

“Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in the least, I’m afraid.”
“I often wonder what we go to school for,” said Wimsey.”

“There is something about wills which brings out the worst side of human nature. People who under ordinary circumstances are perfectly upright and amiable, go as curly as corkscrews and foam at the mouth, whenever they hear the words ‘I devise and bequeath.”

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.”

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”

[One character on another:]
“Don’t you know that I passionately dote on every chin on his face?”

“Salcombe Hardy groaned: “How long, O Lord, how long shall we have to listen to all this tripe about commercial arsenic? Murderers learn it now at their mother’s knee.”

“Parker looked distressed. He had confidence in Wimsey’s judgment, and, in spite of his own interior certainty, he felt shaken.
“My dear man, where’s the flaw in [this case]?”
“There isn’t one … There’s nothing wrong about it at all, except that the girl’s innocent.”


Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries): Dorothy L. Sayers: Rich, Rewarding and Way Ahead of Her Time.

Harriet Vane is long past marrying age, independent (like Ms. Sayers herself, she is a mystery writer) … and on top of all that, she was the primary suspect in the murder of her own fiancé not too long ago. So can she possibly be a good choice as the person that her alma mater, Oxford’s [fictional] Shrewsbury College turns to in order to help solving crimes ranging from poison pen letters to acts of vandalism and assault? Not all of the college’s dons think so. In fact, even before being called on for this delicate task, upon returning to Oxford for the first time in years for a school reunion (“Gaudy Night”), Harriet’s presence in the college triggers thinly-veiled inquiries into the details of her encounter with the criminal justice system and, coincidentally with that experience, into her difficult friendship with Lord Peter Wimsey (much-acclaimed graduate of another Oxford college, diplomat, amateur sleuth and, for much of his career, one of literary history’s most dashing bachelors). Shrewsbury’s teachers and students, past and present, heatedly discuss issues ranging from a woman’s choice between profession and family, and the respective values of independence and loyalty, to the meaning of truth and accuracy in a scholar’s work ethics. Those who were never in favor of the college’s decision to ask Harriet to help unraveling the secret behind the progressively evil deeds plaguing Shrewsbury are, predictably, even more scandalized when she ultimately brings in Lord Peter Wimsey; who after all, as everybody has long since concluded, is vying for her hand in marriage. Ultimately, however, the dons find themselves almost uniformly grateful to Harriet and Lord Peter: The perpetrator’s identity is revealed, and the sleuthing pair has managed to keep the affair out of the headlines and out of the local police’s reach – which would have meant immeasurable damage to the college’s reputation, so crucial at a time when the presence of women on the sacred grounds of a traditional and highly acclaimed university was anything but a given.

This novel has it all: the best of Dorothy L. Sayers’s writing (rich characters, intimate knowledge of her subject and the setting of her story, suspense, humor and a thoroughly believable plot), a profound and engrossing discussion of moral issues way ahead of her time and, last but not least, one of the classiest and most unusual marriage proposals I know of, in fact or fiction. (“Placetne, magistra?”) Unlike many other mysteries it does not open with the crime to be solved; rather, Ms. Sayers leads the reader into the story through Harriet’s reflections upon returning to Oxford for her school’s reunion. This book, then, is not to be measured by the standards or the sensationalism of an action thriller – it follows the beat of a more measured drummer, although tensions are certainly running high throughout the story; emotionally, socially and otherwise. This is one of Dorothy L. Sayers’s best works, and not only a great mystery story but as truly rewarding and lasting a reading experience as any literature ever will be.


Favorite Quotes:

“Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him – or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.”

“The rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed … or find a still greater man to marry her. … The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women; indeed, it was often found sweet and commendable in him to choose a woman of no sort of greatness at all.”

“A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity.”

“What’ll Geoffrey do when you pull off your First, my child?” demanded Miss Haydock.
“Well, Eve – it will be awkward if I do that. Poor lamb! I shall have to make him believe I only did it by looking fragile and pathetic at the viva.”

“I imagine you come across a number of people who are disconcerted by the difference between what you do feel and what they fancy you ought to feel. It is fatal to pay the smallest attention to them.”

“He was being about as protective as a can-opener.”

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

“If it ever occurs to people to value the honour of the mind equally with the honour of the body, we shall get a social revolution of a quite unparalleled sort.”

“You’d think (losing his job and degree for having made false claims as a researcher) would be a lesson to him,” said Miss Hillyard. “It didn’t pay, did it? Say he sacrificed his professional honour for the women and children we hear so much about – but in the end it left him worse of.”
But that,” said Peter, “was only because he committed the extra sin of being found out.”

“Some people’s blameless lives are to blame for a good deal.”

“A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.”

“He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed – a kind of amiable absurdity.”