Guest Review from Jen, another librarian with a reading problem. For more of her reviews, visit The (Hopeful) Librarian!
Why did I get it: It’s the fifth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series – and the first with Harriet!
How I would rate it: 5 out of 5 stars.
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.
Review: If you, like me, have been listening to friends and relations badgering you for years to start reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, you could do worse than to start here. And if you haven’t had friends and relations badgering you for years to start reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, I would be happy to start.
I always perceive myself as a science fiction and fantasy reader, not a mystery reader, although I am extraordinarily fond of certain kinds of mystery and detective stories. What draws me the most are the character-based stories, and Sayers has this in spades. Wimsey is a wonderful character; he’s minor English nobility, a second son (and grateful to his brother for being the one responsible for the estate of Duke’s Denver) and he took up detecting in order to get over a heartbreak after the War. By Strong Poison that was years ago; now it’s 1931 and he’s rather famous for his determination to get involved in any corpse that seems interesting.
Strong Poison opens, unusually for a mystery novel, at the trial – but Lord Peter is convinced that Harriet Vane is innocent, and he spends the rest of the book proving it. He’s well aware that the fact that he’s fallen in love with her is impacting his ability to detect, but he doesn’t let that stop him. After all, if she’s hanged for the murder then she can’t marry him.
Harriet, too, is a wonderful character. We see her only when she’s in prison, awaiting a second trial, but she gives a remarkably strong impression of herself. She’s self-composed and unrepentant, and she takes Lord Peter’s proposal of marriage on their first meeting as you might expect someone in that situation to take it: with resigned incredulity. She admits, though, that he is not repulsive, and you can see the seeds of a relationship being planted, ready to grow in some less insane conditions.
The third character who really makes up the backbone of this book for me is Miss Climpson. She’s a spinster, one of what society tended to call at the time “unnecessary women,” and Lord Peter has not only hired her as his assistant, he’s set her up with a whole organization of spinsters, young widows, and other women who have more skills than society generally lets them utilize, and lets them loose on his cases. (When he needs to get someone into a lawyer’s office, Miss Climpson sends six of her women to interview for the secretary’s position.) Miss Climpson has a tremendous moral backbone, but she’s willing to bend it a little for Lord Peter’s sake, and for the sake of one of his cases. The seances she arranges which reveal the final piece of evidence are spectacular.
I think Strong Poison is my favorite of the Wimsey series so far, and that’s saying something, because they’re all wonderful. Mystery readers are probably already familiar with Sayers, but I think that anybody who loves clever, complicated characters would love this books as well. It isn’t really a whodunit, as there’s an obvious suspect and the bulk of the effort is spent in figuring out motive and opportunity, but it is a wonderfully satisfying story. (If you like this one but aren’t generally a mystery fan, skip The Five Red Herrings and go straight on to Have His Carcase, you won’t be missing anything.)