Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Unquestionably one of Sayers’ best. Lord Peter falls in love with Harriet Vane, accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and proves her innocent. The storytelling is witty and entertaining throughout, with excellent thumbnail sketches, including debunkings of Bohemia and spiritualism, and Miss Climpson is as splendid as ever. The murderer and motive are known from early on. What remains concealed until the end is the utterly brilliant method which ranks with the best of R. Austin Freeman‘s.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th October 1930): The case looked very black against Harriet Vane.  Accused of murdering Philip Boyes by poisoning him with arsenic, in the first chapter, she receives a new lease of life only because the jury who listen to the case disagree.  Lord Peter Wimsey believed she was innocent mainly because she did not look like a person who could commit a crime.  He also believed that the deceased’s cousin was too complacent altogether, and that he had far too strong a precautionary defence drawn up.  For instance, Boyes had dined with his cousin on the night he was taken fatally ill, and Urquart had been very particular to share every dish with him and even to make certain that each had been finished in the kitchen afterwards.  He even sealed up the bottle of burgundy from which Boyes had taken a drink, long before there was any suspicion of poisoning.  On this same night, moreover, Boyes had paid a visit to Harriet Vane in her flat.  They had once lived together, had quarrelled, and he wished to make it up.  As a strong dose of arsenic had been administered to him, and as he had eaten nothing that Urquart had not eaten, the only way he could have taken it was in a cup of coffee given him by Harriet. Lord Peter was not at all satisfied with Mr. Urquart and his carefully prepared meal.  When he probed a little deeper into that gentleman’s affairs he discovered an excellent motive for murdering Boyes and also a strong conviction that Urquart did it.  This conviction is shared by the reader, but it remains to be shown how he got the arsenic into his cousin.  The end of the story is as ingenious as any solution could be.

Spectator (15th November 1930): With so much accomplished before the story opens—the murder, investigation by the police, an [inquest?], and all but the summing up of the judge and the verdict of the jury at the trial—it was almost inevitable that the ensuing chapters should drag somewhat.  The jury disagree, the defence is left with a month to assemble any fresh evidence, and Lord Peter Wimsey, attracted by the prisoner, decides to investigate.  Though he is very amusing at times, this is not sufficient to counteract the feeling of disappointment that will surely be felt at the conclusion, when it is found that the only person who could have been genuinely suspected by the reader of the murder is the murderer, and also at the clearing up of a point which surely troubled the police, and is explained by the fact that the murderer was able, after some time of practice, to consume the poison without any ill effect, while his unfortunate guest, not so proficient, collapsed and died.

Sat R (11th October 1930, 200w): The detective stories of Miss Sayers never fail to be both ingenious and amusing.  Her great merit, for this reviewer, is that she knows How Everything is Done.  None of the men and women in her books ever have to think twice about picking locks, opening envelopes while keeping the seals intact, or stealing wills from under the noses of their owners.

Sat R of Lit (W.C. Weber, 20th December 1930, 80w): Here is unquestionably a shining star in the mystery story firmament and the best of all the Lord Peter Wimsey stories—until the next comes along.

Frank Swinnerton: Surpassingly good.

Michael Sadleir (broadcasting): For ingenuity in deduction Miss Sayers has no superior.

Daily Mail: It is a long time since a detective story so good as Miss Sayers’ Strong Poison was published.

Evelyn Waugh (Graphic): Miss Dorothy Sayers gets better and better.  Her new ‘Lord Peter’ detective novel is by far the best she has written.  Not only is the plot perfectly convincing and ingeniously contrived, but the whole structure and technique of the book, as a novel, raises it far out of the ruck of ordinary shockers.