Review 1406: Strong Poison – #1930Club

There are those who feel that Dorothy L. Sayers ruined her Lord Peter Wimsey series with the introduction of the character Harriet Vane. I am on the fence about this. On the one hand, I don’t really enjoy Peter’s sappiness as he courts and marries Harriet. On the other hand, I like Gaudy Night, the mystery that Harriet solves herself.

I also enjoyed Strong Poison, the novel in which Harriet is introduced. Harriet, a mystery writer, is accused of poisoning her ex-lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. In 1930, when the book was published, no one quite understands why Harriet broke off with Philip. Philip convinced her, against her principles, to live with him without marriage, stating that he did not believe in it. Then he turned around and asked her to marry him, which Harriet views as his having tried her out. Her resulting anger seems to be the police’s motive. Lord Peter doesn’t believe it for a moment. He thinks Harriet is innocent and wants to marry her himself. Luckily, there’s a hung jury, so Peter has a month to investigate.

At first, Peter can’t get anywhere, because he can find no motive. Yet he is struck by the precautions Philip’s host at dinner took when Philip was taken ill to preserve the food. Peter is even more struck by the precautions he took not to be left alone with Philip or give him medicine when he was ill. But this host, Mr. Urquhart, Boyes’s cousin, had no opportunity to administer the poison, and Harriet did. Moreover, Harriet purchased arsenic as research for her book.

About halfway through, this mystery becomes more a puzzle about motive and opportunity than the identity of the killer. It skillfully unwinds, however, and does not cheat by hiding information from the reader.

I reread this novel for the 1930 Club and Readers Imbibing Peril, and was glad I did. I had forgotten the witty dialogue and the deft characterization.

Related Posts

Busman’s Honeymoon

Whose Body?

Unnatural Death


Day 806: Silent Nights

Cover for Silent NightsSilent Nights is a collection of classic mystery stories set at Christmastime. Represented are well-known writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as writers who are not as well known now, such as Ethel Lina White and Leo Bruce. At least, I am no expert, but I have not heard of them before.

Like most mystery short stories I’ve read, these are more concerned with posing a puzzle. They are not long enough for much serious characterization or detailed plotting. Still, I found some of them surprisingly effective.

In “Waxworks” by Ethel Lina White, for example, atmosphere is created in a story of a female reporter who decides to spend the night in a haunted wax museum. She is stalked there by a jealous coworker.

“Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace has an ending reminiscent of “The Gift of the Magi” in which the ill-gotten gains from a robbery that are hidden in the crop of a Christmas turkey end up in the hands of a poor, innocent couple about to depart for Canada. They think both the turkey and the money are gifts from the woman’s rich uncle.

In “The Unknown Murderer,” H. C. Bailey’s detective Dr. Reggie Fortune figures out the game of a pathological murderer. In “Cambric Tea” by Margery Bower, a jealous man tries to frame two innocent people for murder.

link to NetgalleyNot all are that successful. “A Problem in White” by Nicholas Blake doesn’t tell the solution (which I guessed) unless you turn to the back of the book. “The Name on the Window” by Edmund Crispin depends its puzzle on which side of the window the victim supposedly wrote the name of his attacker. Yet for this solution, we must suppose that the victim was stabbed and then walked around a building and down a long hallway for no apparent reason than that he could collapse on the other side of the window. Not, I think, the behavior of a dying man. (And, typically, he didn’t just write the name of his attacker; he hinted at it.)

In any case, this collection made me interested in looking for some of the longer works by some of these authors.

Related Posts

The Santa Klaus Murder

Thirteen Guests

The Hog’s Back Mystery

Day 327: The Five Red Herrings

Cover for Five Red HerringsAlthough I am normally a fan of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, The Five Red Herrings is exactly the novel I’m talking about when I say that I don’t care for the Golden Age mysteries full of railway timetables. This type of novel boils down to a puzzle designed to confuse the reader with a lot of detail. I do like Lord Peter, but I like him better when I have to keep track of fewer things.

Lord Peter is visiting an artists’ colony in Scotland when a painter is found dead. He is Sandy Campbell, a talented artist but one who also has a talent for getting drunk and picking fights. He is found in a stream with his half-finished painting on the bank high above, and the reasonable explanation is that he accidentally fell to his death. However, Lord Peter immediately notices inconsistencies that make it impossible for Campbell to have painted the picture.

Whoever the murderer is, he or she must also have been a talented painter, for the picture is exactly in Campbell’s style. Six other artists in the area who had quarrels with Campbell have enough ability to be the killer. Some of them have convincing alibis, and the solution revolves around–yes–railway timetables.

As usual, Lord Peter is entertaining. His man Bunter is not as much in evidence as in other novels, which is a little disappointing, but Sayers capably depicts a group of colorful suspects.

Day 307: Unnatural Death

Cover for Unnatural DeathAfter a long battle with cancer, Miss Agatha Dawson dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her great niece, Miss Whittaker. Nothing may be suspicious about this, but a local doctor is uneasy. He did not attend her at her death, but he treated her earlier and distrusts Miss Whittaker. When he cautiously voices his doubts, he is drummed out of the community for blackening Miss Whittaker’s name. So, he turns to Lord Peter Wimsey for assistance.

Miss Dawson’s nurse insists that the old lady was delirious the last month of her life and couldn’t possibly have written a will. The witness to Miss Dawson’s will claims that Miss Dawson did not want to be involved in the signing of the document. This does seem suspicious. Lord Peter is vaguely interested, but when he starts looking into the case, odd things happen. The first is that the maid dies.

Lord Peter and his friend Inspector Parker pursue the case, Lord Peter with his usual humor and urbanity. Lord Peter is an interesting character. A World War I veteran who is still haunted by the events of the war, he hides his nerves with bouts of silliness. He is a collector of rare books and a pianist who also flies his own plane and barrels around the countryside in his motorcar.

By and large, I enjoy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, although on occasion they get bogged down in a myriad of details, for, as a Golden Age mystery writer, Sayers prefers to present her readers with puzzles rather than motives. However, the complexity in Unnatural Death is created with the plethora of suspects who managed to traipse through the dying woman’s bedroom, all with their own stories–an approach that is more to my taste than complicated railway timetables.

Day 258: Busman’s Honeymoon

Cover for Busman's HoneymoonI have always thought that, with a few exceptions, the arrival of Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter Wimsey series pretty much ruined it. Some of those mysteries are not so bad, and Have His Carcase (wherein Lord Peter meets Harriet) and Gaudy Night (wherein Harriet solves a mystery on her own) are very good, but Busman’s Honeymoon is just too sappy. It is hard to know if Peter and Harriet’s marriage is Sayers’ idea of an ideal relationship or a reflection of some relationship she actually had, but I find that Lord Peter’s galumphing happiness contrasts strangely with Harriet’s odd undertones.

Lord Peter and Harriet are married and travel for their honeymoon to a house they bought in the country. But when they arrive, they find the house is not ready for them and the previous owner, Mr. Noakes, is nowhere to be found–until next morning when Bunter finds him dead in the basement. In the meantime, the servants have been cleaning, and all the clues are gone.

One positive point for the novel is that the Dowager Duchess shows up, a favorite character. We also get a little more background on the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter.

I guess this isn’t the best selection for Valentine’s Day, since I’m criticizing it for sappiness, but if you have different tastes than mine, you might like it. I see that the reviewers on Amazon are remarking at how romantic it is. And also commenting on the subtle humor. Well, I didn’t find it so subtle.

Day 124: Whose Body?

Cover for Whose BodyIt has been years since I read Whose Body? by the British writer from the Golden Age of Mysteries, Dorothy L. Sayers. Unfortunately, as soon as I saw the murderer’s name, I remembered who did it, so I was not able to judge how difficult it was to guess.

Mr. Thipps finds an unidentified body in his bathtub wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. The body bears a resemblance to a missing financier, but it is not him. Who is the dead man and how did the body get into the tub? Where is the missing financier? Is this one case or two? Of course, the police suspect Mr. Thipps. After Mr. Thipps’s mother asks him to help, Lord Peter Wimsey gets interested in the case and decides to find the answer to these questions in his inimitable way.

As always, Sayers is fine in characterization, much better than many of her Golden Age peers. Lord Peter is his usual apparently frivolous self. He and his man Bunter are fun. Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, is adorably ditzy. The plot is clever. However, as with many early mystery novels, it is overcomplicated and very unlikely. For people who haven’t read any Lord Peter books, I recommend Murder Must Advertise as a better starting place.

As a total side note, the cover I’m showing is not the one for the book I read, but is just one I found on Amazon. It occurs to me, why would they show the body of a woman when the victim is a man? This disconnect in publishing is always a mystery to me. One peek at the first few pages would have told the artist the sex of the body.