Friday, 30 September 2016

Book of 1930: Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

 
published 1930
 
strong Poison
 
 
[Miss Climpson, on the instructions of Lord Peter Wimsey, is trying to drum up an acquaintance with a home-care nurse]

Miss Climpson ordered another cup of coffee and a roll and butter. There was no window-table vacant, but she found one close to the orchestra from which she could survey the whole room. A fluttering dark-blue veil at the door made her heart beat, but it proved to belong to a lusty young person with two youngsters and a perambulator, and hope withdrew once more. By twelve o’clock, Miss Climpson decided that she had drawn blank at the “Central [cafe].”…

At half-past three she sallied out again, to indulge in an orgy of teas. This time she included the Lyons and the fourth tea-shop, beginning at the far end of the town and working her way back to the ’bus-stop. It was while she was struggling with her fifth meal, in the window of “Ye Cosye Corner,” that a hurrying figure on the pavement caught her eye. The winter evening had closed in, and the street-lights were not very brilliant, but she distinctly saw a stoutish middle-aged nurse in a black veil and grey cloak pass along on the nearer pavement. By craning her neck, she could see her make a brisk spurt, scramble on the ’bus at the corner and disappear in the direction of the “Fisherman’s Arms.”

“How vexatious!” said Miss Climpson, as the vehicle disappeared. “I must have just missed her somewhere. Or perhaps she was having tea in a private house. Well, I’m afraid this is a blank day. And I do feel so full of tea!”
 
commentary: This is my entry for Rich Westwood’s monthly Crimes of the Century meme over at Past Offences – this month we are all writing about a 1930 book, and I am just getting in under the wire…

Miss Climpson’s mission is to inveigle her way into the house of an elderly woman, and find her will. To this end she is staying in a small town in the Lake District, and haunting the cafes in her attempts to find the nurse who looks after the old lady. It is an enthralling part of an excellent book, and one of my favourite sections in the whole of Sayers. Miss C will make the acquaintance of the nurse, and realize that spiritualism is the way to her heart. She will then stage a couple of fake séances up at the big house, with the old lady silently sleeping above. It is tremendous stuff, with all the details Sayers does so well.

The purpose of this elaborate operation is to prove the innocence of Harriet D Vane, who makes her first appearance in this book. Wimsey has fallen in love with her, and also believes her to be innocent of murder, and he throws all his resources at the miscarriage of justice. By chance (the least likely event in the book) Miss Climpson, as above, was on the jury at Harriet’s trial, and held out against a guilty verdict. In those days there was no room for a majority verdict, and a retrial is called. Lord Peter has a month to get new evidence.

It is a fascinating book, as we follow all his different searches and investigations. Given that Harriet is innocent, there isn’t a wide range of possibilities for the guilty party, but that doesn’t matter: the story is tense and exciting, with its grave disappointments (the incident of the white powder!) and its clear indication that Harriet is being judged as much for her unmarried relations as for anything else.

Recently some of us were suggesting which Agatha Christie book we could recommend to a new reader: it occurs to me that this would be the ideal book for someone wanting to try out Lord Peter Wimsey. It does not have the slight silliness of some of the earlier books, and has real, believable characters with dilemmas and ideas. Many of us really enjoy any appearances of Miss Climpson, and in this book there is a Miss Murchison too, who does a tense undercover job in a solicitor’s office, again beautifully described. To this end, she learns lock-picking from a retired burglar. There are also scenes of Bunter vamping the help at a suspect’s house: flirting with the cook and maids in a most satisfying way.
The book also contains a full account of how to make a jam omelette, though as I explained in a Guardian piece on food in books:
this happens in court, during a murder trial, with the unusual purpose of explaining that the dish could not have been poisoned. The cook’s technique is praised, and the appalling judge says ‘I advise you all to treat omelettes in the same way’. You could certainly make one from the description, though it doesn’t sound all that delicious.
As a book of 1930, the moral judgements and the old boys’ network are key features. And Sayers always does such (convincing) details about characters’ lives that you feel there is sociological interest there.

More Dorothy L Sayers all over the blog - click on the label below.

Picture from the Library of Congress.

















37 comments:

  1. I see the little town as Ilkley. And I love Miss Climpson and wonder what other jobs she has held in her life. Her pursuit of the nurse is one of the funniest bits in Sayers (up there with the visits to Bohemia). But I can't stick Burglar Bill any more.

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    1. I like Burglar Bill, he sent a 'thick book of ranting hymns' as a wedding present for Lord Peter and H, didn't he? But Miss Climpson is the best. Ilkley! I'll have to think about that...

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  2. Not read this one in ages - is it free of the questionable politics and racism? I would love to have a Sayers book to recommend I didn't have to apologise for - I usually plump for SEVEN TAILORS!

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    1. If you are going to read any vintage literature, then it makes sense to judge it by the mores of its time...I take it that you disaprove of Shakespeare and Dickens?

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    2. Sergio, is that a particularly abridged version of the Nine Tailors? I think this one is fairly harmless, but no guarantees.

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  3. I've always liked this one a lot, Moira. One thing I like about it (besides the fact that, as you say, it's not really silly) is that it really shows some clever approaches to getting to the truth. And there is real suspense in it. It's interesting, too, how Sayers comments on the mores of the age, and people's priorities. I don't blame you for thinking of this one as one to recommend to those new to Sayers.

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    1. Yes, the array of investigative techniques is impressive. Lord Peter pulled out all the stops. And yes, you certainly do get a feel for the age.

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  4. Strong Poison was one of the first Wimsey's I ever read, and has always been one of my favourites. I always see the small town as Hay-on-Wye, but that's probably because I associate it with the Armstrong murder which took place in nearby Cusop, and on which Strong Poison was allegedly partly based.

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    1. Oh interesting! I like the fact that we all have our own picture of the town. I was always surprised by how many cafes there were in this small place, but Hay on Wye (now) has a huge number...

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  5. Oh, I must reread this, Moira. I love Miss Climpson, too. The death penalty - deplorable as it was - did raise the stakes in crime fiction.

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    1. Harriet Vane says much the same...

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    2. yes that's very true. And when you look at old trials, and old crime stories, the sentence was carried out very quickly. There wasn't much time for further investigation and proving innocence. Sayers uses the time constraints to very good effect - there's a telling moment when Lord Peter sees a seasonal advert or poster, and it brings home to him how little time there is....

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  6. And… I can no longer see anyone enjoying this book without eagerly recommending To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis at them. It also enhances the experience if one has read Three Men in a Boat and all the Agatha Christies, as well as probably all the other Wimseys.

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    1. Duly noted, don't know it at all but am off to look it up...

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    2. Love Connie Willis! Highly recommend her.

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  7. I'm never going to be a huge fan of this series...Wimsey is bloody insufferable to this colonial commoner :) ... but I did enjoy Strong Poison much more than the other book of Sayers' I'd tried.

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    1. I am helpless before Sayers - she drives me mad, but I can't help enjoying. But as you say, this one is probably less annoying to those who are not fans.

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    2. I know what you mean, but there were a number of Wimseys broadcast, gosh, over 30 years ago? Even though I didn't think he was quite physically right, I adored Ian Carmichael in them. "Murder Must Advertise" was the first I saw, and it got me hooked.

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    3. Argh. I just looked it up and that series for television was made over FORTY years ago.

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    4. Oh blimey. I remember better the later series with Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane, I thought she was very good. Well, Lord Peter must have made a change from Rock Follies, that must be nearly as old!

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    5. Yes, the Wimseys were made over several years, of course, but they're roughly contemporary. And quite a different milieu! But there was one country house party with all the BYTs that had almost a rock follies vibe.

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    6. The image that summons up is splendid!

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  8. I had wanted to read this one also for the 1930 meme, but I could not fit in two books. I plan to read Busman's Honeymoon (a re-read) so that I can then watch Haunted Honeymoon in a new DVD we got. We used to have a tape of it years and years ago. I had thought reading one of the three books with Harriet first would be good. And this is the one I like the best.

    I had forgotten entirely about the jam omelette and want to read that account now. I used to make a strawberry jam omelette and enjoyed (back in my youth).

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    1. Yes, I was shocked to find how close it was to the end of September before I got round to it! My latest ever I think. I don't know Haunted Honeymoon - is it good?

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    2. It has been so long since we watched it, I had to ask Glen to be sure that my memory was correct, but he agreed, we did enjoy it. We taped it off TCM way back when and probably watched it a couple of times. Robert Montgomery and Constance Cummings. Although I remember nothing and it will be all new to me. I have no idea if it has any resemblance to the book... possibly not very much.

      I am starting my re-read of Strong Poison today.

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    3. Oh, I just saw this a few months ago...on TCM, of course. Nothing really like Sayers, but it's enjoyable on its own. Typical of its time, and I love Robert Montgomery.

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    4. OK, looks like I'm going to have to get hold of this film then...

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    5. ... Just looked it up, DVD very expensive... will keep searching.

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  9. This has always been one of my favourites. It's beautifully concise (240 pages to HAVE HIS CARCASE's 440 pages) but Sayers manages to fill it with loads of enjoyable stuff. At this point she is still writing strong detective novels with extras rather than staight novels with some detective interest. It's not just a whodunnit; Wimsey has to uncover how and why, and the central gimmick is rather clever and might just actually work in the real world (then if not now).

    Of all the novels, this one does most clearly show Wimsey as the head of a small organisation rather than simply a lone sleuth. There are places that he can't go and things that he can't do, and he is prepared to delegate in the way that real life polioe detectives do. It's always good to see 'The Cattery' at work.

    The characterisation is handled very well, and even relatively small roles are sketched in very vividly. Bill Rumm is so memorable that I've always regretted that Sayers never really used him again (rather like Conan Doyle's Shinwell Johnson from THE ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT). It's always seemed to me that Bill Rumm does provide a counter-argument to the accusations of snobbery made against Wimsey and Sayers. Lord Peter doesn't send for Rumm; he goes to his house, has a meal with him, and asks for his help.

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    1. Excellent points, and yes I think we can all enjoy the group effort to get Harriet off. This has always been one of my favourites - she lavished great scenes and characters and sidelines on it, where I think some would have saved some of them for another book...

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  10. Is it embarrassing that my strongest memory of this book is the omelet? I'd been making them since I was a kid, but I'd never heard of a sweet one before, and although the idea fascinated me I've still never made one!

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    1. Yes, that was me too, I can remember thinking 'A JAM omelette?' and, no, I never made one either...One day.

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  11. Strong Poison was the first Sayers novel I read (mum's ex-library yellow Gollancz hardback) and it's still one of my favourites. Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison are intelligent and resourceful and there's some genuine suspense - especially when Miss Murchison is in Urquhart's office. I wish Jill Paton Walsh had left LPW & HV alone and written a series about Miss Climpson and the Cattery instead... And I feel rather sorry for Marjorie Phelps. I know Lord Peter is desperate but he really isn't very tactful at that point!

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    1. I think she (ie Sayers) toyed with the idea of Marjorie before settling on Harriet. But not very sisterly of DLS! Picking up Miss C and Miss M is a brilliant idea, someone should totally do that.

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  12. The bloke in the photo looks like someone from a Carry on film.

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