Impossible, it seems. The Crown's case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge's summing-up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of the killing her lover. And Harriet Vane shall hang.
I am a big fan of what are often referred to as the “golden age of crime” novels especially those of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. Strong Poison is one I had wanted to read for some time but- though I have spotted her novels in charity shops and on book laden tables during bookcrossing meet ups – never seem to come across this particular novel. So I gave in recently and downloaded it to my kindle at a cost of £4 or £5 – I think it was worth it. Having stumped up the cash – so to speak, for ‘Strong Poison’ I was chuffed therefore, when I found another Dorothy L Sayers novel ‘Whose Body’- the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel published in 1923 - available for free (girlebooks.com).
It is in Strong Poison that we – and indeed Lord Peter – meet Harriet Vane – who is an important figure in some later Sayers novels. In this novel although she is at the centre of the story she doesn’t actually appear very often. Harriet is on trial for Murder; Lord Peter in the public gallery is convinced she is innocent. Thankfully Lord Peter’s employee Miss Climpson happens to be on the jury and although certainly not prompted by Lord Peter – she too believes the prisoner innocent and sticking to her guns throughout deliberations ensures that a verdict cannot be reached. Forcing the judge to order a new trail gives Lord Peter valuable time to investigate to truth of the matter. The problem though, is that the victim, Harriet Vanes former lover, was poisoned – his last meal he shared with his cousin and the servants and they suffered no ill effects, but he was later taken ill shortly after drinking coffee with Harriet Vane in her flat. There are three possibilities, he was murdered by Harriet Vane – obviously not, he committed suicide, or was murdered by someone else, only how?
The plot is fairly ingenious I thought – although I did guess the whodunit – I think most readers will. In a way the who is less important in this novel and could be said to be pretty obvious – but it is the howdunit that kept me guessing. Ably assisted by the utterly marvellous Bunter, Miss Climpson and the ladies of The Cattery – a typing bureau that is really a bureau of investigation funded by Wimsey, Lord Peter sets out to prove Harriet Vane innocent. The fact that he has immediately fallen in love with her and proposes to her upon first meeting her in prison adds a little flavour of romance to the story. The period of 1929/1930 – which of course is around the time the novel was written is beautifully portrayed – no doubt fairly seamlessly as Sayers was writing about her own era – but how wonderful for us now to have this period so humorously presented to us with its peculiarities of speech, social conventions and class snobberies.
I found this overall to be a thoroughly entertaining read, and for those readers new to Dorothy L Sayers it would make a pretty good one to start with.