Strong Poison

Strong Poison  
Early paperback edition cover
Cover of BBC video version
Author(s) Dorothy L. Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre(s) Mystery Novel
Publisher Gollancz
Publication date 1930
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 567
ISBN NA
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by Five Red Herrings

Strong Poison is a 1929 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her fifth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Contents

Plot introduction

It is in Strong Poison that Lord Peter first meets Harriet Vane, an author of police fiction. The immediate problem is that she is on trial for her life, charged with murdering her former lover. If Lord Peter does not prove she is innocent, he will lose her before he even persuades her to accept his proposal of marriage. But all the clues point to Harriet as the one who gave Philip Boyes the arsenic that killed him.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is derived from a phrase in some variants of the ballad Lord Randall, where the title character was poisoned by his lover.

Plot summary

Mystery author Harriet Vane has been accused of the murder of her former lover, Phillip Boyes. Boyes was a novelist and essayist who wrote in support of atheism, anarchy, and free love. Professing to disapprove of marriage, he persuaded a reluctant Harriet to live with him against her principles and they led a Bohemian life in the London art community. A year later he proposed, and Harriet, outraged at being deceived into giving up her public honour, broke off the relationship.

During the year that followed, Boyes suffered from repeated bouts of gastric illness, while Harriet had bought several poisons under assumed names to test a plot point of her novel then in progress. Having returned from a holiday in North Wales in better health, Boyes dined with his cousin, the solicitor Norman Urquhart, before going to Harriet's flat to discuss reconciliation. That night he was taken fatally ill, apparently with gastritis. He died four days later after an agonising period of suffering.

Although it was assumed at first that Boyes died of natural causes, an indiscreet nurse and some of Boyes' friends insisted that foul play was involved. A post-mortem revealed that Boyes' death was due to acute arsenic poisoning. Apart from the evening meal with his cousin, where every item was shared by two or more people, the only opportunity for poison to have been administered appeared to be in a cup of coffee, offered by Harriet Vane.

Harriet is tried, but the result is a "hung" jury, thanks in no small part to the presence of Wimsey's aide, Miss Climpson, on the jury. With fewer than ten of the jury agreeing on a verdict, the judge must order a fresh trial to be held.

Wimsey visits Harriet in prison, declares his conviction of her innocence, and promises to catch the real murderer. In the course of the interview he also openly admits his intention of marrying her, an offer which she politely but firmly declines. Working against time before the new trial, Wimsey first explores the possibility that Boyes took his own life. Wimsey's friend, Detective Inspector Charles Parker, conclusively disproves this notion, but Wimsey has planted a spy, Miss Joan Murchison, in Urquhart’s office and discovers the real culprit is Urquhart.

Suspecting Urquhart's story that he, not Boyes, is in line to inherit the considerable fortune of their senile great aunt, Wimsey sends Miss Climpson to get hold of the great-aunt’s will, which she does in a comic scene exposing the practices of fraudulent mediums. Not only does the will name Boyes as the principal heir, but in Urquhart's office, Miss Murchison finds evidence that, misusing his position as his own family's solicitor, Urquhart embezzled the majority of the great aunt's holdings and subsequently lost them on the stock market. Urquhart knew that if his great aunt died, he would be exposed. Boyes, however, was unaware that he was heir to the money. With him dead, Urquhart would inherit the estate and hence his fraud would not be revealed. Miss Murchison also discovers a packet of arsenic hidden in Urquhart's office.

Wimsey has now established motive and means, but not opportunity. But after re-examining the details of Boyes' famous last dinner (and perusing A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, in which the poet likens reading dark poems to King Mithridates' self-immunization against poisons) , he realizes that Urquhart laced an omelette with arsenic and shared it with Boyes after having built up an immunity to the poison with small doses over a long period. Wimsey tricks Urquhart into an admission before witnesses.

At her retrial the prosecution presents no case and Harriet is set free. Exhausted by her ordeal, she again rejects Wimsey’s proposal of marriage.

It is also in this novel that Peter finally persuades Parker to propose to Peter's sister, Mary.

Also the Honourable Freddy Arbuthnot, Wimsey's friend and contact for the stock market, in this book finds a long-delayed domestic bliss with Rachel, the daughter of Sir Reuben Levy who was murdered in Whose Body?.

Characters

  • Lord Peter Wimsey – protagonist, nobleman and amateur detective
  • Harriet Vane – protagonist, author of detective fiction
  • Philip Boyes – Harriet's former lover, now deceased
  • Norman Urquhart – Solicitor and Boyes' cousin
  • Rosanna Wrayburn, aka "Cremorna Garden" – great-aunt of Boyes and Urqhart, sometime stage performer, now senile and bedridden
  • Charles Parker – police detective; Wimsey's future brother-in-law
  • Miss Katharine Climpson – spinster and enquiry agent on Wimsey's behalf
  • Miss Murchison – typist and employee of Miss Climpson
  • Lady Mary Wimsey – Peter's younger sister, engaged to Parker;

Literary significance and criticism

...highest among the masterpieces. It has the strongest possible element of suspense — curiosity and the feeling one shares with Wimsey for Harriet Vane. The clues, the enigma, the free-love question, and the order of telling could not be improved upon. As for the somber opening, with the judge's comments on how to make an omelet, it is sheer genius.[1]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Strong Poison was adapted for television in 1987 as part of a series starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. It was also adapted for radio with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Ann Bell as Harriet Vane, also part of a BBC radio series in 1973.

Relation to earlier books

Strong Poison constitutes an exact mirror image of Unnatural Death, published four years before. In the earlier book, Wimsey encounters the case of a woman who inherited money after a death which was ruled "natural" and—against all odds—works relentlessly throughout the book to prove her a murderess. In Strong Poison he encounters the case of a woman who is on trial for murder with an apparently watertight case against her and—again against all odds—works relentlessly throughout the book to prove her innocent.

There are several more clear similarities between the two books. In both, the culprit's identity is obvious from early on, but Wimsey has to work hard to discover the motive and means. Moreover, in both the motive turns out to be the inheritance of a considerable sum of money, but in both there was no apparent need to commit murder since the culprit stood to get the money anyway—and the bulk of both books is spent in finding out why this was in fact not so.

Relation to real life

A section of the plot is autobiographical. The part about the Bohemian relationship between Harriet and Boyes was inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers' fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.

Following this Sayers became involved in another relationship which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In 1924–25, in the period of her life following the delivery, Sayers wrote eleven letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship, her relationship with Bill White, and that with her son. The letters are now housed at Harvard University. Both Sayers and Cournos eventually fictionalized their experience: Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.

Literary References

  • As Urquhart is led away by the police, Wimsey says, "Mithridates, he died old." This is a line from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, referring to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who supposedly built tolerance against a whole range of deadly poisons by the same method (known as Mithridatism) as Urquhart.

References

  1. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8

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