Dorothy L. Sayers lived a remarkable life, born in 1893, she was an only child and her father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, was the headmaster of the Choir School. She started learning Latin at age six. She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she studied modern languages and medieval literature. She was one of the first women to be awarded a degree by Oxford University.
In ‘Strong Poison,’ her protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey meets mystery novelist Harriet Vane for the first time. This is the 5th full length novel to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. I was surprised when I read the book, how relevant it was to today. While Lord Peter Wimsey may be a little too good to be true, Harriet Vane seems to be loosely based on the author’s own life and offers the reader a rich and complex character.
As the story begins, Harriet Vane is on trial for the murder of her ex-boyfriend. As the court sums up in the first few pages, Harriet was brought up in a strictly religious home. She falls in love with Philip Boyes, a fellow author who is opposed to conventional marriage. Harriet, eventually agrees to live with him. Ultimately, she breaks up with Boyes and is now on trial for murdering him with arsenic.
When Lord Peter Wimsey reads about the case in the paper, he becomes convinced of Harriet Vane’s innocence. He meets with her and uses his intelligence and contacts to ferret out the truth about the death of Phillip Boyes.
Dorothy Sayers had a similar relationship with fellow author John Cournos as Harriet did with Boyes. Cornos wanted Dorothy to live with him without marriage. According to her biography she spent a year of agony between 1921 and 1922 with him.
I loved this book. It is in the same vein as others in the golden age of mystery like Rex Stout and Agatha Christie. It is an intellectual puzzle to solve. However, given the time frame in which the book was written, I found this book to be a little bit more edgy. Sayers is definitely exploring a Bohemian lifestyle, free love and the class system. I especially enjoyed Harriet Vane, who was a strong and independent woman in an era where that wasn’t the case.
Sayers was not only involved in writing mysteries. She wrote a variety of academic and religious works. Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work.
Five stars out of five.