I have spent the last two weeks reading Murder by the Book by Sally Munt, a book published in the 90’s exploring feminist crime fiction. As you can imagine, there are constant references to classics, so I saw myself stopping my study routine to read two wonderful crime fiction classics that had been on my to-be-read list for quite a long time: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.
Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.
I have to say, Strong Polson (1930) made me use my e-reader again and this time I did not dread the reading process. Sayers’ mastery of plot and narrative is so excellent that I did not notice I was reading on my device, something that I am still struggling with. Also, Strong Poison is the fifth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, but I had no problem getting acquainted with the characters in any way, which pretty much tells of Sayers’ ability to create great characters.
As a crime fiction reader, there is nothing that I like most than a meta narrative, and Sayers produces the reader with the perfect story here: a female crime fiction writer that is accused of killing her partner with whom she was illicitly living. I loved reading about a woman crime fiction writer in the 1930’s and all the connotations that it implied. Harriet Vane’s literature is regarded as unimportant and unsuccessful even though she makes a living as a writer and her works were much more well-known that those of her partner, who by the way, wrote better literature, or so the rest of the characters say. It was also very interesting to read about the prejudices that such a woman had to face, one of them being that she was angry at her partner for not wanting to marry her, when it was actually the other way round. Murder by the Book describes Harriet Vane as the first example of a sexually active and independent woman in crime fiction and I cannot but agree. I have to admit I was shocked at how Harriet very much set the tone for the relationship and was the main bread-winner in the family.
As for Lord Peter Wimsey and his family, I fell in love immediately with them. I even pictured his mother as Maggie Smith in her role in Downton Abbey as the dowager. They seemed quite an unusual family for the 1930’s, so I really want to learn more about them. But, Wimsey as a detective was one of a kind. He is an aristocrat, but he is funny and quirky and I loved how direct he was when he confessed Harriet he wanted to marry her. I could not but think of these ladies portrayed in TV shows as crazy for wanting to marry serial killers! At first I was shocked that he would bring up the marriage issue so quickly, but Sayers makes Harriet an independent woman when she lets her ponder her answer. Also, the conversation he and Harriet had about their previous sexual encounters was very sincere and I think Sayers did a great job at making them equals and setting the tone for – I hope – a future relationship based on equality and respect.
Sayers’ books are often accused of being racist and classist. I could see the classist prejudices in the same way I could see them in Christie’s: the servants appear as rough and uncultured. There is also a lack of racial diversity, but taking into account Lord Peter’s social status, this is no surprise. So, as you can see I am actually more willing to let certain things pass in Sayers’ stories that I am not in Christie’s. This only shows how much I loved Strong Poison and I really plan on reading the following installments.
So, I would recommend this crime fiction classic to everyone. As a product of the crime fiction Golden Age, there are not shocking scenes, too many corpses or forensic details. Strong Poison is what I would call a cozy crime novel, and a very good one.
Want another opinion? Keishon from ‘Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog’ also loved Strong Poison. Click here to read her review.
It also made it to Marina Sofia’s post on the best Sayers works at Crime Fiction Lover. Click here to read the post.