Part Two of An Abundance of Mysteries: Dorothy Sayers’s STRONG POISON

Strong_PoisonWhile I gallopped through Massey’s Widows and Griffiths’s Galloway #2 and 3, I trotted through Sayers’s Strong Poison, savouring her wit and stopping to chuckle and admire what Sayers did with a sentence. While the Bellona Club had me thinking about Sayers, the Great War, and the memento mori theme, A Strong Poison elicited a more emotional response (with memento mori lurking), fitting for a novel introducing the great love of Peter Wimsey’s life, Harriet Vane. To return to a comment I made in my previous post, about the interweaving of the detecting with the detective’s personal life, Strong Poison perfectly exemplifies this. As a matter of fact, I would say the mystery’s rational aspect, the working out of the crime thanks to the detective’s mind and abilities (except for the post-mo detective story, which I don’t read, which probably owes the crime’s solution/resolution to randomness, or “dumb luck”) is balanced by their personal lives. In Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love, at first sight, with the accused (of her lover’s murder no less). Wimsey’s detecting powers are at the service and mercy of his heart. A detective, amateur or otherwise, may be a person of honour, integrity, with a thirst for justice, but when these qualities are coupled with a personal, desirable love, then we have as perfect a mystery novel as Sayers’s Strong Poison.

What follows isn’t much of an analysis and it certainly isn’t a review. I adored Strong Poison and these are reflective trifles.

First, I loved the flowers. When the novel opens at Harriet Vane’s trial, roses lie on the bench:

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

A spinster juror saves the day by rightly having doubts about the accused’s guilt. The court day carries on and the roses reflect the passage of time:

Some petals had split from the red roses.

Thanks to an inconclusive jury, Wimsey has 31 days to save Harriet. The court is brought to conclusion:

The dock was deserted. On the bench the red roses stood solitary, their petals dropping.

Who brought the roses? Why are they there? Could it have been Peter? Or the spinster juror? They are a poignant reminder of the passage of time, as Harriet’s life is 31 days away from the noose. At the end of the novel, when Wimsey has gathered the necessary evidence to exonerate Harriet, flowers again appear:

There were gold chrysanthemums on the judge’s bench: they looked like burning banners.

There is something triumphant about this image, something about the “gold” and “burning” that signify a start rather than end, a pending HEA.

I loved the narrative moments where Wimsey, urbane, buffoonish, sharp, mercurial, is at the mercy of his overwhelming feelings for Harriet. A snippet from their first meeting:

” … Being a writer of detective stories, I have naturally studied your career with interest.”

She smiled suddenly at him and his heart turned to water.

Wimsey’s watery heart is evident in his heartfelt, breezy proposal to the still-noose-bound Harriet:

” … when all this is over I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.”

” … But why –?”

“Why? Oh, well — I thought you’d be rather an attractive person to marry. That’s all. I mean, I sort of took a fancy to you. I can’t tell you why. There’s no rule about it, you know.”

Wimsey is flummoxed before his incomprehensible feelings. He doesn’t question, or rail against; he’s lovably matter-of-fact, accepting “there’s no rule,” no logic, no rationale, they just ARE. 

At the same time, even in impossible circumstances, and in Wimsey’s humorously elliptical way before Harriet’s disbelief, their conversation touches on what marriage is about: compatibility, attraction, affection. Harriet may not be ready to accept Wimsey’s proposal, but they’re already working stuff out:

” … you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?”

“Oh, yes. So have I, if it comes to that. In fact, several. It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody. I can produce quite good testimonials. I’m told I make love rather nicely — … Oh, by the way — I don’t positively repel you or anything like that, do I? Because, if I do, I’ll take my name off the waiting-list at once.”

“No,” said Harriet Vane, kindly and a little sadly. “No, you don’t repel me.”

“I don’t remind you of white slugs or make you go goose-flesh all over?”

“Certainly not.”

I’m glad of that. Any minor alterations, like parting the old mane, or growing a toothbrush, or cashiering the eye-glass, you know, I should be happy to undertake, if it suited your ideas.”

“Don’t,” said Miss Vane, “please don’t alter yourself in any particular.”

Other than my howls of laughter at Wimsey’s “testimonials,” how wise these two are. Wimsey isn’t alpha-jealous, or forgiving-judgy-judgy, he is anxious that Harriet know he’d make a good lover. He can satisfy her and he’s conscious, especially in the bits that follow what I’ve already quoted at length, of putting her in an untenable position. He wants her to make a free choice and his place in her life will not be intrusive. He wants her to thrive with him, rather than for him. Peter’s subsequent post-Harriet vision of what matrimony ought to be is perfection:

” … poor kid, I would damn well work to make it up to her — she’s got a sense of humour too — brains — one wouldn’t be dull — one would wake up and there’d be a whole day for jolly things to happen in — and then one would come home and go to bed — that would be jolly, too — and while she was writing, I could go out and mess round, so we shouldn’t either of us be dull — “

Wimsey’s elliptical “jolly” is a vision of marriage as companionship, affection, sexual pleasure, care, and a place for one’s own interests. This a feral spinster could get behind.

To conclude, before the hope of “burning banners,” Wimsey is beset by his feelings for Harriet; the urgency of solving her lover’s, Boyes’s, murder is no longer a dispassionate exercise for his mind, like a crossword puzzle. It’s married to the desperate call of his heart and a reminder that time and tide wait for no one:

… he felt for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of triumph of mutability. Like the poisoned Athulf in the Fool’s Tragedy, he could have cried, “Oh, I am changing, changing, fearfully changing.” Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again. It was not that his heart would be broken by a disastrous love — he had outlived the luxurious agonies of youthful blood, and in this very freedom from illusion he recognised the loss of something. From now on, every hour of light-heartedness would be, not a prerogative, but an achievement — one more axe or case-bottle or fowling-piece rescued, Crusoe-fashion, from a sinking ship.

For the first time, too, he doubted his own power to carry through what he had undertaken. His personal feelings had been involved before this in investigations, but they had never before clouded his mind. He was fumbling — grasping uncertainly here and there at fugitive and mocking possibilities. He asked questions at random, doubtful of his object, and the shortness of the time, which would once have stimulated, now frightened and confused him.

If the spectre of the Great War haunts The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club, a liminal lesson in time and mortality, grasping at “fugitive and mocking possibilities” like soldiers caught in a gas attack (memory eternal, Wifred Owen) then love serves a similar purpose in Strong Poison. Poison is not merely the arsenic that killed Harriet’s former lover, it’s Wimsey’s reminder of “mutability”, a shift in rational time, a mere moment, that serves in one’s life as a milestone, when the ground shifted and the ability to cross the gap became impossible, when reason gave way to the uncontrollable, irrational, and emotional. Where the possibility of loss took flesh in the person of Harriet Vane. War and love are where Wimsey is made, where “Time’s wingèd chariot” is heard “hurrying near,” rendering a life well-lived, love, and connection with another person the only things stemming the incontrovertible “Deserts of vast eternity.” (With thanks to one of my favourite poets and poems, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”.) Peter is made all too aware that he may fail, he may not be able to save Harriet … the HEA, even a pending one, stem time and tide. At least for a while.

15 thoughts on “Part Two of An Abundance of Mysteries: Dorothy Sayers’s STRONG POISON

  1. I read all of Sayer’s Wimsey books in the long ago. I liked them well enough but not enough to re-read. However, the three books featuring Peter’s courtship of Harriet Vane–those I love and have re-read with pleasure. By the time I get to the scene on the footbridge at the end of ‘Gaudy Night’ I am so happy I need a tissue or three.
    Lovely review. His early conversations with Harriet are so wonderful. As I was reading this for the first time it was very comforting to know (courtesy of the existence of the follow on books) that there was a good ending. Imagine reading this when it first came out–the suspense would have been almost unbearable!

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    • I didn’t think of that. I for one would’ve been chomping at the bit to the next book. I think these books are lovely. I read them when I was too young: the romance didn’t move fast enough for me and I didn’t appreciate the wit. Now that I’m solidly middle-aged, they’re an absolute delight.

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  2. What a great post. Strong Poison is my least favorite Harriet-and-Peter novel: Peter hasn’t yet become the more interesting person Sayers set out to make him so that he would deserve Harriet and for me it shows, including in his pretty problematic decision to propose to her under those circumstances! But it’s all still so pleasurable, and I like your point about his vision of marriage, which it takes them a few more books to really work out. Sayers never pretends that his first proposal isn’t a problem, either, which I respect–not here and not in the later books.

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    • Thank you so much! If this is the least of them, the rest must be magnificent! She doesn’t, as he says to Harriet, he’s put her in a bad position, the man who’s going to free her? What kind of obligation does that leave her with? But to give Sayers and her creation credit, he does make many mitigating statements. Really, the BEST thing about the novel is actually The Cattery, but I’m saving my comments for when I write about Pym’s Excellent Women and feral spinsterhood.

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    • Yes, to everything you just said; I remember thinking, “how self-centered do you have to be to do that?” and I cheered that Harriet doesn’t let him off the hook about it, when she says (more or less), “do you know how many nutters want to marry notorious criminals?”

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      • She basically says to him, take a number. It was funny. And then he worries about whether she finds him repulsive. THAT he won’t stand for, he’ll take himself “off the list” for that. Offers to part his hair differently. At this point, Wimsey’s channelling “Prufrock”!

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  3. I’m just here to squee about “Strong Poison” and what a delight it is. Thanks for your thoughts, it’s now inevitable that I’ll be rereading it for at least the 5th or 6th time. I haven’t been counting.

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  4. In Chinese watercolor painting, the mum is one of The Four Gentlemen along with the plum blossom, the orchid and the bamboo. Each represents a season – plum blossom is winter, orchid is spring, bamboo is summer, and the mum is autumn. They are symbolic of the passage of time (changing seasons.) Also more appropriate here is the mum’s mythological significance representing longevity and hopefulness and symbolizes the ability to withstand adversity. So indeed these lovely flowers are like ‘burning banners’ and not just an authorial whimsy. *ducking*

    I’ve need to find these books I think. eBay is calling my name!

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    • No *ducking* necessary! I think that adds oodles of meaning: other than poor Ophelia’s abortives plants/flowers, my floriology is nil, so thank you!!

      You’re back on eBay: one of my best days when you start the bidding!!!

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      • I’ve learned a lot about floriography since I began rereading the Betty books with “scent” in mind. I loved the little factoid about mums because they’re the flower for my birth month, and the rose month, et al kinda outshine plain ole mums as regards floriography. But, their significance in the Chinese culture and painting makes up for not being as showy as some flowers.

        Ah, yes, eBay! 😂 It’s a more controlled excitement for me on eBay these days lest I forget the time eBay excitement completely overwhelmed me and I began to bid against er myself! Lord, I do believe I invented a few dozen shades of red that day! However, I’m not afeared of starting the bidding or even egging someone on, but I have learned a few lessons – above all patience, grasshopper, don’t get in a bidding war, play my cards close to the vest until the final few seconds and THEN BAM! To the victor the spoils! Oh and make sure Coenraad is occupied chasing his jingle bell ball catnip toy so he doesn’t sit on my keyboard while I’m trying to enter my final winning bid. Yes, that really happened on some Mary Burchell books I really, really wanted.

        I checked Mt. TBR and found I have one Sayers/Wimsey book! Clouds of Witness I believe. Not the first, but close and a good place to start perhaps.

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        • Ah, Coenraad, ever the mischievous one!!! I hope your bidding wars: the victor, the spoils!, go well b/c I want you to read the St. Cyr books and join the Sebastian is the nonpareil club!!!! 🙂

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