Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review: Strong Poison

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers (1930)

Now that's more like it.

After a comparatively weak outing in The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club both Wimsey and Sayers are back to fine form. Sayers adroitly introduces a new character to the regulars of the Wimseyverse while allowing characters introduced in previous books to grow, change and interact in convincing ways. Sayers demonstrates here how an author can delegate important parts of the action to "non lead" characters without undermining the detecting authority of the main characer. For example, the intelligence and initiative of Miss Murchison reflects well on Miss Clipsom as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. The intelligence and initiative of Miss Clipsom reflects well on Wimsey as the person who recognized her talents and abilities. Chief Inspector Parker, unlike the "official" detectives in so many series based on the sleuthing of unofficial detectives, is not stupid, not a bad detective, not slavishly dependent on and impressed by the amateur sleuth nor childishly resistent to pay attention to the opinions of someone who has often been right in the past.

Sayers plays absolutely fair with her readers in this murder and its detection. The final piece of information, the final datum necessary to solve the case, was something that anyone who was well read in British murder trials could be expected to know (althought they may be forgiven if they forgot that they did know it.)

This reader's main regret after finishing this book is that Sayers never wrote a novel, or series of short stories, that centered around Miss Clipsom. Clipsom was what I think Agatha Christie wanted Miss Marple to be, a convincing demonstration of the acuity and worth of the neglected spinster. I like to think of the many tales that Miss Clipsom could have told about what really went on behind the doors of polite British society. And then I realize that Miss Clipsom, being Miss Clipsom, would have either brought the matters to the attention of the relevant authority or taken with her to the grave those things which were immoral rather than illegal.

Rating: 4-1/2 stars


  1. Mithradates, he died old...

    Until I read Strong Poison, I never knew that such a thing was literally possible.

    And I wish there'd been more of Miss Climpson and Co., too.

    In other news, although I still haven't got around to Diary of a Provincial Lady, I just read (well, skimmed through) Jan Struther's Mrs Miniver (which I gather has very little to do with the movie of the same name). Talk about the last gasp of "Old England." Mrs Miniver in 1937, with a house in London and a country house in Kent, and nannies and cooks and maids in both of them, considers herself merely middle-class. On the other hand, she's pretty well aware of how privileged she is. And I can't help feeling some sympathy for someone who feels that no moment is complete until she's remembered the appropriate poem to go with it!

  2. I think I learned the Mithradates, he died old from a different murder mystery, but I had encountered into before Strong Poison. So I noticed some of the clues that Sayers left along the way. But she really does play fair doesn't she?

    Is Mrs. Miniver any good? My reading list is getting dreadfully long.....

    BTW, what do you think of Allingham. So people adore her Campion books but at the moment I am just not seeing it.

  3. Eh, it was okay; I don't think you need to go out of your way for it, having read so much from that era already.

    No, I know, if you want to lengthen your reading list with snippet-views from someplace else entirely, how about Helen Chappell's Oysterback Tales. Those were fun.

    I hope this links to where I think it does: local news from the Oysterback Bugeye, via Google Books.

    Allingham I have to be in the mood for-- and I haven't quite figured out what the mood is-- sometimes I like them and sometimes I don't. I guess I have to be in the mood for language and atmosphere rather than plot or plausibility, maybe.

  4. Oh, on Allingham: have you read Echidne of the Snakes today? She's done a brief, uncomplimentary review of The Fashion in Shrouds-- I'd forgotten about that one! It's just as sexist as she says, but I think it's also notable that Campion himself ends up with a very different sort of woman and a very different sort of marriage.

  5. Yeah, I caught that review/commentary. I am trying to decide how to take it. Yes, I agree that Allingham's work has lots of sexism in it but I did get the feeling that Echidne was reading quickly, superficially and out of series and cultural context.

    I mean, after all, Allingham was a highly respected and financially successful woman working in a field that was peopled in large part by other highly respected and financially successful women and often her books (and theirs) they enjoy ragging on popular memes. Sort of like Austen playing with the Gothic sensibility in Northanger Abbey.


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