My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Cold where it needs to show some heat and creepy where it needs to be cool, Strong Poison has the reputation of being the first of Dorothy Sayers’s detective novels to introduce the element of romantic comedy to her plots. And yet it reads more like a surrender of those aspirations. It is technically a detective novel with romantic elements, but those elements are so perfunctory that the designation seems like one of those mistakes of taxonomy that left the Mammalian kingdom saddled with the duck-billed platypus.
As far back as her second Wimsey volume, the admirably melodramatic Clouds of Witness, Sayers seemed to hint at a possible romantic entanglement between Lord Peter’s stolid sidekick, working-class detective Charles Parker, and Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s rebellious, socialist-minded sister. It’s a great pairing, in theory: the characters’ backgrounds and insecurities seem designed to stir up all sorts of interpersonal conflict and conciliation. And then this plot thread is dropped and not even mentioned for three books, until two quick conversations abruptly bring about their engagement in this volume. It’s tied off with all the dispassionate plot surgery of a failed experiment.
The novel’s attempt to float the beginning of a romance for Lord Peter goes over like a lead balloon as well. Again, it would all seem to work in theory: a detective falling for a young woman in the process of clearing her of a murder charge is a good pitch, and making Harriet Vane a detective novelist with nearly as good a mind for concocting crimes as Lord Peter has for solving them is a great choice, especially to the extent that it introduces some ambiguity to the question of her innocence. And yet again, it just doesn’t work in practice: Lord Peter’s initial indication of interest comes off as an uncharacteristically creepy advance, and it compounds some of the problems of the mystery itself, which stretches to the utmost limit the weird license Lord Peter has to interfere in police investigations and the British justice system. I could see an alternate version of this novel where Harriet is guilty, and Lord Peter frames up someone else for the crime because he’s in love with her. Probably it would be written by Gillian Flynn.
To her credit, Sayers seems to recognize the power imbalance of this relationship at the end of the book, as she has Lord Peter decide not to press any advantage he might have gotten by saving Harriet from the gallows, and decides to wait for her to come to him. At any rate, she doesn’t have nearly as much fun with the possibilities of romance in this as she does with the concept of Lord Peter’s “cattery,” a small domestic spy network of middle-class spinsters who feed him information from a vast network of gossip circles and secretarial jobs around London. The two best sequences in the novel, by far, are suspense passages where unassuming middle-aged women do some shoe-leather detective work that is too sensitive for Lord Peter to be able to deal with. Sayers may eventually get the hang of weaving romantic subplots into her detective work (or I may eventually come to better appreciate her approach), but for now, she seems to be at her strongest when summoning the inner lives of women who are generally uninterested in such things.
Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing Strong Poison, just follow the link below: