1. Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers

1 Jan

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There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

No more perfect romance has been established in all of literature than the one between the effete, incunabula-collecting, quotation-spouting detective Lord Peter Wimsey and bluestocking detective-novelist Harriet Vane. The Lord Peter books were written by Dorothy Sayers, a Christian theologian, noted Dante translator and one of the first women to graduate from Oxford (before the university gave women degrees, actually, though they made an honest woman of her in 1915), from the 1920s through the end of the 1930s, and set in England in the period between the two world wars. I have read every book in the series to shreds, in some cases dozens of time each, and would probably have to call them my lifetime favorite books.

The romance arc starts with Strong Poison, when Harriet Vane—a dignified, if bohemian, young woman making her way in the world through writing—is accused of murdering her former lover (at a time when it was considered scandalous for a woman to have a lover) and Lord Wimsey sees her in the witness box and falls in love.

The judge paused for a moment, and Freddy Arbuthnot jerked and elbow into the ribs of Lord Peter Wimsey, who appeared to be prey to a gloom.

The magic is alchemical and somewhat difficult to explain. Peter is a Lord, Harriet is a commoner. She is disgraced and has had a lover. He is shell-shocked from World War I and has taken up his somewhat ghoulish habit of “detectin’ things,” making him the black sheep of the family. He swans into the Halloway gaol and proposes to her in Strong Poison, which proposal she declines. Their banter, which is a pastiche of scholarly quotations, is delightfully, deliciously absurd and has produced many of my favorite exchanges in all of literature.

     ‘Who was Barbara?’ asked Harriet quickly.
‘Oh a girl. I owe her quite a lot really,” replied Wimsey, musingly. ‘When she married the other fellow, I took up sleuthing as a cure for wounded feelings, and it’s really been great fun, take it all in all. Dear me, yes—I was very much bowled over that time. I even took a special course in logic for her sake.’
‘Good gracious!’
‘For the pleasure of repeating ‘Barbara celarent darii ferio baralipton.’ There was a kind of mysterious romantic lilt about the thing which was somehow expressive of passion. Many a moonlight night have I murmured it to the nightingales which haunt the gardens of St. Johns—though, of course, I was a Balliol man myself, but the buildings are adjacent.’
‘If anybody ever marries you it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,’ said Harriet, severely.
‘A humiliating reason, but better than no reason at all.’

And so he pursues her through the novels, sometimes actively, sometimes as a footnote or two, until Gaudy Night, another mystery starring Harriet, this one set at Oxford, and in my mind the most perfect book in a perfect series, though it’s neck in neck with Busman’s Honeymoon, the one that follows. All of the books have a social conscience, but the later ones take up education for women and a woman’s role in a marriage with more explicit feminism than the others, wonderfully realized through Harriet and Peter’s struggles to establish a partnership they can both live with despite the conventions of the time.

I have been asked which book I think people should start with, a conundrum which has tormented me for some years. Ideally, you would start with the first Lord Peter book, and follow him chronologically. However the Wimsey character develops a lot over time, and the first books wouldn’t necessarily make a person fall madly in love. Strong Poison is the first in the romance arc, but even then I’m not sure lifelong devotion to the series is a done-deal. Unless you are a fanatic and a completist, I would say….start with Gaudy Night. And then, depending on how wildly obsessed you are, either a) start from the beginning or b) go back to the meet-cute in Strong Poison, or c) proceed directly to Busman’s Honeymoon. I predict that anyone who manages Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon will then have to read the whole series…..

One Response to “1. Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers”


  1. 2. Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh | An Anthology of Clouds - January 2, 2015

    […] (For a more thorough introduction to Sayers’ work, see this blog post.) […]

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