Monday, September 20, 2010

Dorothy Sayers: Strong Poison

**This guest post was contributed by The Supreme Arbitress of Taste, who reviews films of Golden Age Hollywood and movie adaptations of classical literature at her blog, Seeing Sepia.**

Welcome to the first of a 4-part series on the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane Mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers!  Those of you familiar with my article My Top 10 Fictional Boyfriends of Page and Screen know that Lord Peter Wimsey was my unequivocal choice for the most attractive fictional man of all time. Apparently my description piqued Publius' (Perhaps I should say Publii if I want to decline the Latin noun correctly) curiosity to the point that he asked me to review some Lord Peter books for the sake of public edification. Of course I was only too happy to oblige him, but before I get on to the book review, I would like to say a few words about Dorothy L. Sayers.

Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford University, and before she became famous as a mystery writer, she developed a reputation as a Christian theologian. She was also the only female member of the Inklings group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. During the 1920s she took her first foray into fiction when she published Whose Body? a murder mystery starring the socialite sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver. Needless to say, the book was popular enough to launch a whole series of Lord Peter novels and short stories over the next twenty years, making Sayers second only to Agatha Christie in popularity for British detective fiction. Perhaps the reason that Sayers was so successful was that she didn't try to copy Christie's style of labyrinthine plots and mile-long lists of suspects. Instead Sayers relied on compelling and realistic characters, an area in which Christie with all her brilliance could not come close to equaling Sayers. 

Like most successful detective novelist, Sayers had a plan to "kill off" her famous detective, not by poison or a bullet, but rather by having him marry, settle down, and live happily ever after. Thus in 1930 she introduced us to Lord Peter's future bride Harriet Vane in the book Strong PoisonHarriet was a thinly veiled portrait of Sayers herself: an Oxford grad and mystery writer who was haunted by an ill-advised love affair, and because of this Sayers injects a depth of feeling and insight into that character that exceeds her already-high standards.

In what I think is one of the best opening in detective fiction, Sayers sets the scene for the murder trial of Harriet Vane:

"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
"The judge was an old man, so old that he seemed to have outlived time and change and death."

Miss Vane has been accused of murdering her former lover Phillip Boyes, but the case against her is purely circumstantial. Unfortunately public opinion is almost uniformly prejudiced against her because she is a "loose woman" who had the gall to refuse her lover's offer of marriage. Her reasoning makes more sense, however, when we learn that Boyes had hounded her for over a year about her living with him, claiming that he was against marriage on principle and that co-habitation was the only way they could be together. Then after Harriet had given up all her friends, relatives, and moral scruples for Boyes' sake and had been living with him for quite some time, he had the effrontery to ask her to marry him, at which point she broke off the relationship entirely, saying, "I didn't like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize." I for one entirely agree with Harriet's decision because what Phillip Boyes did to her was manipulative and boarding on the mentally abusive. To hound someone into disgracing themselves like that and then tell them that it was all for nothing is the sign of a sick mind. Unfortunately the only person who seems to agree with that assessment is Lord Peter Wimsey, who has fallen in love with the intelligent and  defendant.

With Harriet's character thus blackened by her past actions, it looks as if she will hang for sure until a lone juror ruins the trial by refusing to go along with the guilty verdict. Lord Peter, therefore, has only one month to exonerate Harriet before the re-trial.

There are many brilliant parts to this novel, but many people have made the case for the first few chapters--the trial scene--being the best. Of course it's rather ingenious to start a mystery story with a summation of the case against the prime suspect, and my lawyer father says that it's the best portrayal of a hostile courtroom he's ever seen in print, even better, he says, than Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution . And this is all contrasted to Lord Peter's comments to his friends during the trial, his firm conviction that Harriet is innocent. Of course I have no wish to deny that the scene is wonderfully written, but I feel that there are some equally good moments later on.

My favorite parts of this book are the encounter with Blindfold Bill, now an Evangelical minister, and Miss Climpson's fake seance. Even though Miss Climpson is extremely moral and honest, she pretends to be a psychic medium in order to obtain a copy of a will that proves someone besides Harriet had a motive for killing Phillip Boyes. What's delightful about this scene is that is conveyed in the form of letters from Miss Climpson to Lord Peter in which her tone is half-child-like giddiness at having an adventure and half-apologetic for the subterfuge to which she must stoop. As for the Blindfold Bill scene, I just appreciate how lovingly Sayers draws a character that in another author's hand would be a  stereotypical religious fanatic and possibly a hypocrite. Instead Bill is extremely likable as he now uses his safe-breaking powers for good and not evil, helping investigators to break into safes in order to retrieve evidence. Of course the whole scene is still hysterically funny because the best lock-picker in Europe is a family man and says "By God's grace," whenever referring to the past events of his life, but it doesn't feel cruel or anti-religious.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book, however, is the beginning of Lord Peter's courtship with Harriet Vane--if you can call it that at this point since Harriet is completely non-receptive to Peter's advances because of the extreme trauma she's going through. I really appreciate how realistically Sayers portrays a woman who has been badly hurt by men. We see her dejection, her bitterness, her self-loathing, reticence for any further commitment, and none of these things conveniently vanish for the sake of advancing the plot

Of course compounding Harriet's issues is Lord Peter's awkwardness in dealing with her. A sane, normal person would never speak of love to someone who is both emotionally bruised and in dire peril as a result of it. We can assume that Lord Peter knows this, but he gets so flustered when he's around Harriet that he just kind of blurts it out without thinking. Despite his clumsiness, however, I really admire the reasons for which Lord Peter falls in love with Harriet. Lord Peter is looking for a true partner and companion, and he sees qualities in Harriet like deep feeling and and intelligent, analytical mind--to say nothing of her interest in crime--that complement his own. I also appreciate that he doesn't judge her for the mistakes that she made in the past. We all make big mistakes, after all, but most of ours aren't as public as Harriet's. Also, although it's never stated, Harriet holds the additional allure of being a damsel in distress whom Lord Peter can rescue from the gallows, which certainly appeals to his romantic nature. If Lord Peter wants to win his lady fair, however, it's going to be a long journey because by the end of the novel, he has made absolutely no progress in her affections.

So there's a lot of reasons why you should read this book, even if you're not into mysteries generally, because it has so much more to offer than just a baffling case to solve. Obviously that dimension of the story holds up well, but the book has true merit in terms of characters, comedy, and underlying social issues. This--the whole series, in fact--is one of those rare genre novels that transcends the bounds of its categorization and moves into the realm of true literature.

** This was a guest post by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste. The Supreme Arbitress is the second-generation heir to the title, which was first held by her grandmother, a fashionista and interior decorator, and then by her mother, the most cultured woman in the world. The Supreme Arbitress is a San Francisco native with a degree in English from Seattle Pacific University. When she's not composing the next great American novel, she writes articles for her blog Seeing Sepia, which reviews the films of Golden Age Hollywood and film adaptations of classic literature. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, dancing, and long walks in the country.

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