Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Re-Reading Sayers: Strong Poison

It's been a re-reading kind of week. I don't always know what gives me the re-reading bug, but I suspect it has something to do with busyness. When life is feeling full to overflowing, it's especially wonderful to go to the bookshelf and pull down an old friend.

This week the old friend happened to be Strong Poison, the first of the Wimsey/Vane novels by Dorothy Sayers. I am a big fan of Lord Peter's, but especially in the season where he gets to know and love Harriet.

It had been five years since I last visited this novel, and though I'd not forgotten the solution to the mystery, I had fun remembering how Sayers guides Peter...and her readers...to the very end. What I had almost forgotten was how delightfully funny certain passages are. As Lord Peter might say, "I'm frightfully fond and all that" of Miss Climpson, despite her annoying habit of speaking in italics. Despite the irritation, there's something endearing about it, you know! I found myself giggling over the passage where Miss Climpson turns sleuth and inwardly debates the pros and cons of pursuing the woman she's following (per Peter's instructions) into a shoe store. Such a dilemma...on the one hand, an opportunity to sit next to your unsuspecting quarry and strike up a conversation while you're both trying on shoes, and on the other hand, courting the possibility that the person you're pursuing may slip outside while you're shoeless, or even worse, in the "amphibious" condition of one shoe on/one shoe off.

It's wink and nudge moments like that keep Sayers books so lively. She is not always the best mystery plotter, though I like the plot of this one, and her novels sometimes struggle a bit with pacing (I noticed that again this time out) but it's difficult to care because she's having so much fun. The fun she felt while writing is infectious. Peter seems to feel it, and so do we.

Harriet is hardly a shadow in this one, not at all the full-blown character she'll become in later books. We see her only a handful of times, either in the dock on trial for her life, or in prison when Peter goes to see her. His immediate attraction to her would probably have been even more off-putting if Harriet hadn't been so tense and worried about the trial. As I said in my review of the book five years ago:

But in spite of this very strange beginning to their relationship, we readers can tell that Harriet soon realizes there's more to Lord Peter than meets to eye. Something about this wealthy, light-hearted aristocratic man-with-the-monocle inspires trust. It may be his brain (which is quite good at figuring out knotty problems that stump the police) or it might be his kind heart. It might be the way his sometimes brash bravado clashes with his child-like vulnerability. 

I still stand by that, and the rest of the review too, though I confess it's hard not to let the other Peter/Harriet books color one's sensibility when re-reading these early ones. Maybe that's not a bad thing. In fact, it just might be time to re-read Have His Carcase....

Related post, if you're so inclined: "Oh What a Lovely Gaudy Night," a reflection from 2009 in which I explored some of the wonderful ways in which Sayers deepened Harriet's character as the books progressed.

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