Strong Poison

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Strong Poison
Strong poison.JPG
First edition
Author Dorothy L. Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre Mystery novel
Publisher Gollancz
Publication date
1930
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 567
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by Five Red Herrings

Strong Poison is a 1930 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her fifth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Title[edit]

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

Plot summary[edit]

Mystery author Harriet Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Phillip Boyes, 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, but Harriet, outraged at being deceived into giving up her public honour, broke off the relationship.

During the following year, 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 ill, apparently with gastritis. He died four days later, after a period of agonising suffering.

It was first assumed that Boyes died of natural causes, but an indiscreet nurse and some of Boyes' friends insisted that foul play was involved. A post-mortem revealed that Boyes had died from acute arsenic poisoning. Apart from the evening meal with his cousin in which every item was shared by two or more people, the only opportunity to administer poison appeared to be a cup of coffee, offered by Harriet Vane.

The trial results in a "hung" jury, thanks largely to the presence of Wimsey's aide, Miss Climpson, on the jury. A unanimous verdict is required so 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. He also admits his intention of marrying her, 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 that but Wimsey plants a spy, Miss Joan Murchison, in Urquhart's office and discovers that 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. The will names Boyes as the principal heir, but Miss Murchison also finds evidence in Urquhart's office that he abused his position as his own family's solicitor and embezzled the majority of the great-aunt's investments and then lost them on the stock market. He 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 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. After re-examining the details of Boyes's 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 realises that Urquhart laced an omelette with arsenic and shared it with Boyes after he had built up an immunity to the poison with small doses over a long period. (That was accepted by the science of the time, but it is now believed that long-term consumption of arsenic would cause many health problems, which is pointed out in The Late Scholar, a much later Wimsey novel.)[1] Wimsey tricks Urquhart into an admission before witnesses.

At Harriet's retrial, the prosecution presents no case and she is set free. Exhausted by her ordeal, she again rejects Wimsey's proposal of marriage. Lord Peter finally persuades Parker to propose to Peter's sister, Mary. Also, the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot, Wimsey's friend and contact for the stock market, finds a long-delayed domestic bliss with Rachel Levy, the daughter of the murder victim in Whose Body?.

Characters[edit]

  • 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, or "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, enquiry agent on Wimsey's behalf
  • Miss Murchison – typist, employee of Miss Climpson
  • Lady Mary Wimsey – Peter's younger sister, engaged to Parker;

Criticism[edit]

...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.[2]

Adaptations[edit]

It was adapted for television by Philip Broadley in 1987 as part of a series starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane.

It was adapted for radio three times:

Broadcast Lord Peter Harriet Vane Charles Parker Adaption
25.05.1963 Frank Duncan Mary Wimbush Timothy West Felix Felton
17.06.1973 Ian Carmichael Ann Bell Gabriel Woolf Chris Miller
02.10.1999 Simon Russell Beale Emma Fielding Nicholas Farrell Michael Bakewell

Relation to real life[edit]

A section of the plot is autobiographical. The part about the Bohemian relationship between Harriet and Boyes was inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers's 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.

Then, Sayers became involved in another relationship, which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In 1924–1925, in the period of her life following the delivery, Sayers wrote eleven letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship and her relationship with Bill White her son. The letters are now housed at Harvard University. Both Sayers and Cournos eventually fictionalised their experience: Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.

Literary references[edit]

As Urquhart is led away by the police, Wimsey says, "Mithridates, he died old." That line from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad refers 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[edit]

  1. ^ Blum, Debra (20 December 2011). "The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for a Deadly Dinner". Speakeasy Science. PLOS blogs. 
  2. ^ 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

External links[edit]