Title: Strong Poison
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Nutshell: Lord Peter Wimsey is the extraneous brother of an English Duke in the 1930s. He is quite well off, and spends his time and money solving crimes. The case in his sights is the poisoning of a little-known author. The suspect is the author’s ex-lover (Shocked gasps are appropriate. Lovers simply were not had without social stigma in the ‘30s.), Harriet Vane, who was the only person with opportunity to poison him, had a clear grudge, and also had the misfortune to acquire a large quantity of arsenic before the murderous incident. Enter Lord Wimsey, who, on the premise that such a clear-cut case must have missed crucial information, determines to discover the true culprit and exonerate Miss Vane.
Also he has fallen in love with her.
Driven by love, punctuated by hilarity, Peter Wimsey must discover which is tougher to crack: a despicably airtight murder case, or the heart of the accused murderess?
Read-alikes: Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not too far removed from this, although more intellectual and less humorous. Agatha Christie knows somewhat more of humor. Georgette Heyer’s books, though neither mysteries nor set in the 1930s, have a similar flavor of ridiculous to their humor, especially in how close both authors run to satirizing their characters. And my recent read Her Royal Spyness has a similar setting, though obviously a more modern tone and content.
I confess: I am a sucker for dry humor, especially in such masterfully penned interactions as Miss Sayers writes. (Possibly it would also be acceptable to refer to the author as Mrs. Fleming. The copyrights appear under that name.) The conversation between Miss Vane and Lord Wimsey when they first meet is a marvel of subtle sarcasm. Nor is that the only conversation with excellent dialogue. Every interaction is relayed with a tough of tongue-in-cheek amusement.
Also masterful is the way Miss Sayers reveals the plot. It’s been said that the best mysteries let the reader guess the solution just a page-turn before the solution is revealed. This allows the reader to delightedly say, “Aha! I figured it out” without allowing them to get bored waiting to be proved right. The whole of Strong Poison proceeds like this, allowing the reader to draw correct conclusions and then drawing them on by adding new and fascinating information to the matter. Even the first two chapters show this technique. The first chapter is really just a summary of the murder case by the judge, a summary which seems rather even-handed, and yet Miss Sayers plants the seeds of suspicion within it. Then, with the reader’s mind mostly settled on the innocence or guilt of the accused Miss Vane, chapter two introduces the defendant and the reader hears her story. “Oh,” the reader says. “Well, that makes my suspicion makes so much more sense!”
After that, the book proceeds with cheerful abandon. Lord Peter Wimsey lives rather up to his name, and is a very entertaining protagonist. I found this a delightful contrast to all the hard-boiled, rough-cut, and jaded detectives knocking around the mystery Genre, especially on television. Probably my pereception of the language of the English as “quaint” adds to this effect.
As for defects, I did not find any in this book. The plot is tight, the characters are consistent and amusing, and the prose is good. It was well worth reading.