Strong Poison


Author: Dorothy L Sayers

Finished on: 24 July 2017

Where did I get this book: Found at my daughter’s school

Well, now I am really confused.

I’m sure it’s my own fault for starting the love story between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in the middle, then moving to the end, and now finishing with this book, at the beginning. But nothing about their relationship and story arc across the series of books makes sense.

I am left thinking maybe I shouldn’t expect meaningful relationships and consistent characters from detective novels.

This is the book where our heroes meet for the first time. Vane is on trial for the murder of her lover, and as he observes her in court Wimsey decides she is the woman of his dreams. But following the mixed bag that was Gaudy Night, I picked it up with some trepidation.

Vane is a central figure in the story in that her life is at stake. But she barely features as a character in her own right. When she does, she’s unrecognisable as the practical hero of Have His Carcase, or the uber-judgemental mistress of clique in Gaudy Night.

But without the weight of its relationship to the other books in the series, and taken as a stand-alone detective story, this is a fine example.

The mystery is more of a Columbo than a Murder, She Wrote, in that it’s unusually obvious whodunit. But there is a real suspense in how Wimsey will get to the bottom of things. And the howdunit provides a clever and satisfying twist in the tale for murder aficionados.

Wimsey is great company, as always. Sayers injects his ridiculous privilege with just enough humour, kindness and pathos to make him bearable. But the most satisfying section of all is where we leave Wimsey behind, and accompany his employee Miss Climpson on her mission to get to the bottom of the family entanglements at the heart of the matter. The ageing spinster’s ingenuity and good old-fashioned undercover detective work are a joy to behold, and we have the added joy of dabbling in a little spiritualism along the way.

So, the problem with the last couple of Sayers books I have read has been my expectations. Gaudy Night because I expected a good mystery story (and at least one nice murder), and Strong Poison because I expected to be blown away by the momentous first meeting of these two sometimes-superb characters. When in reality that aspect of the story is all very shallow, and a blatant plot device that Sayers obviously went on to explore in more depth that this first outing foreshadows.

Lesson learned: read a series of books in order, or try and let go of the expectations.

But don’t let my jumbled experience of reading these stories out of order detract from the fact that this is a well-told and clever mystery. Take it on its own merits, and all will be well.


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