Returning to an installment in Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series after many years?
Never mind: Lord Peter Wimsey is still as Lord-Peter-ish as ever.
(I read the previous volumes in the series, and the relevant stories, in 2003 and 2004; it’s as though I just put down the fifth book last week.)
Lord Peter is an English gentleman and a detective, not necessarily in that order. His ancestors stretch back to the Third Crusade, fighting alongside Richard the Lion Heart, though he himself was born in the late-19th century.
If he was writing a personal ad, he might mention his love of fine wine and food, fashion, music and his ability to play the piano. He collects first editions and incunabula, “which is a little tedious”, he admits.
A reader seeking to answer that ad must not expect Lord Peter to step too far beyond his class and privilege, to recklessly push the limits of social convention.
A reader who remains unsure can consider the passage below, Lord Peter’s first in this volume.
The novel opens with a judge’s summary as a court case comes to a close, and when the judge adjourns for lunch, Peter Wimsey gathers up his mother and heads for a drink.
“Frightfully sorry to keep you waiting, Mater, but I had to say a word to Biggy. He’s having a rotten time, and that old Jeffreys of a judge looks as though he was getting measured for the black cap. I’m going home to burn my books. Dangerous to know too much about poisons, don’t you think? Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as show, thou shalt not escape the Old Bailey.”
That’s Lord Peter.
And this talk of poisons? It’s a key aspect of the case, in which a woman is accused of having murdered her former lover with arsenic.
And this woman? She is a key figure in Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries, for she is the famous Harriet Vane, with whom Lord Peter has fallen in love, on first sight. Yes, while she is on trial for murder.
That’s serious, but in 30-some-odd pages, it gets more serious: “What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.”
Harriet Vane has had any number of proposals from men keen on the notoriety she holds these days, particularly as her case is about to be re-tried, and she hesitates and questions Lord Peter, who defends himself in a typically Lord-Peter-ish way.
“Why? Oh, well – I thought you’d be rather an attractive person to marry. That’s all. I mean, I sort of took a fancy to you. I can’t tell you why. There’s no rule about it, you know.”
She is not convinced. “But you wouldn’t want a wife who wrote books, would you?” she asks.
(The Crown has raised the matter of her having written mystery novels, in which poisons are consumed, as evidence of her familiarity with the substance employed in her former lover’s murder.)
And here is as far outside the norm that Lord Peter steps, in the direction of affording women an inherent intelligence, which was not necessarily a commonplace allowance, in this age when suffrage is fresh.
“But I should; it would be great fun. So much more interesting than the ordinary kind that is only keen on clothes and people. Though, of course, clothes and people are all right too, in moderation. I don’t mean to say I object to clothes.”
And that, too, is Lord Peter. (It must be said that he also does seem to enjoy a uncharacteristically playful relationship with his man-servant, Bunter, so some might say that he is a willing victim of the British class system. Perhaps this is pushing the envelope socially for its time too.)
In discussing her invention of this character, Dorothy Sayers openly discusses her hero’s class:
“Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.”
Well, when she puts it like that, it does seem harmless. And, when it comes to traditional British mysterious, Sayers is in a class all her own. (I learned of her when I read P.D. James’ 1999 diary of her 77th year, Time To Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography; it makes Sayers sound completely unmissable.)
Many readers begin their Sayers reading with this volume (I hold it’s best to start at the beginning – with Whose Body? - unless you’ve already determined that you will only read one or two from the series and one might argue this a better starting point in that case, followed, perhaps by The Nine Tailors or Gaudy Night.)
That’s understandable; the mystery is well-paced, the minor characters introduced to aid in its resolution are particularly entertaining (well, entertaining, in a Lord-Peter-ish manner), and there is the added fun of seeing Lord Peter smitten.
If there’s a match to be made between a reader and Lord Peter, Strong Poison will not strain the relationship by any means.
Are you smitten with Lord Peter?