Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

“I just couldn’t put it down” has become cliched—and yet, in this case it’s completely true. This is the first time in my recollection that a book has totally gripped my attention and caused me to identify with a character in a tight spot, wondering with wide eyes and racing heart what will happen next.

Just what is it that makes this mystery so captivating? There are many contributing factors: a tight plot, fast paced writing, clever use of repetitive elements (e.g. roses in chap. 1), witty dialogue… and Lord Peter Wimsey. This last is Ms. Sayers’ triumph. In creating Lord Peter, she has combined detective and English gentleman into a thoroughly believable and charming protagonist. Much of this charm is contained in the dialogue. Wimsey has a whimsical habit of interspersing snippets of classic literature throughout his conversation in creative, and often obscure, ways. (In the first few chapters, several fragments from Alice in Wonderland are used.)

The book begins at court during a murder trial. Harriet Vane, mystery writer, is accused of poisoning her lover after a quarrel. As she has been proven to have arsenic in her possession (ostensibly as part of her research for a novel), all present expect a quick conviction. However, the jury comes to an impasse and a mistrial is declared.

Lord Peter, convinced of Harriet’s innocence, determines to conduct his own investigation. He must find the true murderer, establish a motive and provide evidence…all in thirty short days. Will he be able to do it?

  • This book contains some unsavoury elements: mild language, implied fornication, and a séance.
  • An interesting study would be to learn whether the presence of sin in a book necessarily makes it sinful. I think not, considering Biblical narratives. However, one must draw the line somewhere.
  • Questions to ask when encountering passages such as mentioned above: How does the author portray the sin? As attractive and permissible? Or does he write from a Christian perspective, showing sin for what it is: an offense against God and something to be shunned?
  • A unique proposal: “What I mean to say is, when this is all over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.” (Lord Peter to Harriet Vane)

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