Today’s mystery for Mystery Monday Meme is one written in the early 20th century by none other than that maven of mystery, Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. Sayers wrote sixteen novels and books of short stories featuring her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. She was a scholar, and one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University in 1915 with a first class honours in modern languages. Lord Peter first took up detecting as a hobby to help steady his nerves after being shell-shocked in France during the First World War; his manservant, Bunter, his former aide-de-camp in France, helps him with covert surveillance and forensics, in particular, with the use of photography, fingerprinting, and the assessment of chemicals.
Strong Poison is the first of a trilogy of murder mysteries featuring Lord Peter’s love interest in and courtship of Ms. Harriet Vane, an author of murder mysteries herself, and accused in this story of the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes (also an author). The beginning of this novel is unusual in that we are thrust into the summing up of Harriet’s trial by a judge who “looks like he was getting measured for the black cap” as he was reviewing the case for the jury. A hung jury allows Lord Peter the opportunity to investigate the case for himself as he’s certain the police have got it all wrong, and that the defence, Sir Impy Biggs, will be able to get an acquittal once Lord Peter has been able to determine what Boyes was doing in the unaccounted for 10 minutes between leaving Harriet’s apartment and hailing a taxi to the house of his cousin, George Urquhart.
The plot is quite complex. Lord Peter has an employee, Miss Climpson, who runs what appears to be a secretarial pool; but all the women employed there, including Miss Climpson, have extraordinary talents, and are brave in uncovering truth and deception in the aid of justice. To start with, Miss Climpson is on the jury and is responsible for it being “hung”. (Better the jury, than the beautifully fragile Ms. Vane.) Mr. Boyes has an aging relative, wealthy from a rather scandalous period on the stage. His friend, Mr. Vaughan, is convinced that Harriet murdered Boyes for spite after throwing him over. Each part of Boyes’ last meal at Urquhart’s was consumed by at least two people and Philip made the final omelet himself with fresh eggs. There are many red herrings, seances, forays into the bohemian artsy circles where morals and philosophy tend to be of an “advanced” nature, before the guilty party is eventually trapped.
This is a masterly telling of a suspenseful tale of murder, fraud, and deception by an immensely talented writer. As a love story, it doesn’t make it, because Harriet’s first relationship ended so badly she’s not eager to enter into another, and because she doesn’t want to appear to accept a proposal of marriage in gratitude for being saved from the gallows. However, that part develops slowly and carefully over the next two novels in the trilogy: Have His Carcass, and Gaudy Night. Amazingly well-written and compelling work. * * * * *
An explanation is perhaps in order. Last week, I asserted that I would be reading and reviewing an Australian mystery today. (Ms. Sayers was, of course, British.) I had one picked out, purchased, and downloaded to my ipad. It was part of a series by, I am led to believe by reviews online and body of work published, an extremely popular Australian author. Apparently, I have misconstrued the expression “well-written story” to, not be about a well-constructed tale, but to actually be well-written, or at least well-edited. Several chapters in, I realized that I am unable to separate the two, and would end up giving it a rather low evaluation. It’s rather ironic that my reblog yesterday was about “Grammar Nerds”, because, I guess I am one. I tend to think one should write in complete sentences with a continuity of tense and timeline. Now, perhaps — and I’ve seen this before, where an ebook has whole chunks missing not just words here or there — perhaps the hard copy books are different than the ebook I downloaded, but I just couldn’t recommend this book as it was presented to me, and rather than disappoint my Australian friends, I have chosen to wait and read a different Aussie crime novel that I can be truly enthusiastic about. Perhaps, I can elicit some recommendations from my followers and visitors.