Strong Poison

Strong Poison

First edition
Author Dorothy L. Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre Mystery novel
Publisher Gollancz
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 567
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by Five Red Herrings

Strong Poison is a 1930 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her fifth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Plot introduction

In Strong Poison, Lord Peter first meets Harriet Vane, an author of police fiction. The immediate problem is that she is on trial for her life, charged with murdering her former lover. If Lord Peter does not prove she is innocent, he will lose her before he even persuades her to accept his proposal of marriage. But all the clues point to Harriet as having given Philip Boyes the arsenic that killed him.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title is derived from a phrase in some variants of the ballad Lord Randall, where the title character was poisoned by his lover.

Plot summary

Mystery author Harriet Vane has been accused of the murder of her former lover, Phillip Boyes. Boyes was a novelist and essayist who wrote in support of atheism, anarchy, and free love. Professing to disapprove of marriage, he persuaded a reluctant Harriet to live with him against her principles and they led a Bohemian life in the London art community. A year later he proposed, but Harriet, outraged at being deceived into giving up her public honour, broke off the relationship.

During the following year, Boyes suffered from repeated bouts of gastric illness, while Harriet had bought several poisons under assumed names to test a plot point of her novel then in progress. Having returned from a holiday in North Wales in better health, Boyes dined with his cousin, the solicitor Norman Urquhart, before going to Harriet's flat to discuss reconciliation. That night he was taken ill, apparently with gastritis. He died four days later after a period of agonising suffering.

It was first assumed that Boyes died of natural causes, but an indiscreet nurse and some of Boyes' friends insisted that foul play was involved. A post-mortem revealed that Boyes had died from acute arsenic poisoning. Apart from the evening meal with his cousin, where every item was shared by two or more people, the only opportunity to administer poison appeared to be a cup of coffee offered by Harriet Vane.

Harriet is tried, but the result is a "hung" jury, thanks in no small part to the presence of Wimsey's aide, Miss Climpson, on the jury. Under English law as it was at the time, a unanimous verdict was required. With no unanimous verdict, the judge must order a fresh trial to be held.

Wimsey visits Harriet in prison, declares his conviction of her innocence, and promises to catch the real murderer. In the course of the interview he also admits his intention of marrying her, an offer which she politely but firmly declines. Working against time before the new trial, Wimsey first explores the possibility that Boyes took his own life. Wimsey's friend, Detective Inspector Charles Parker, conclusively disproves this notion, but Wimsey has planted a spy, Miss Joan Murchison, in Urquhart's office and discovers that the real culprit is Urquhart.

Suspecting Urquhart's story that he, not Boyes, is in line to inherit the considerable fortune of their senile great-aunt, Wimsey sends Miss Climpson to get hold of the great-aunt's will, which she does in a comic scene exposing the practices of fraudulent mediums. Not only does the will name Boyes as the principal heir, but Miss Murchison finds evidence in Urquhart's office that, abusing his position as his own family's solicitor, Urquhart embezzled the majority of the great-aunt's investments and then lost them on the stock market. Urquhart knew that if his great-aunt died, he would be exposed. Boyes, however, was unaware that he was heir to the money. With him dead, Urquhart would inherit the estate and his fraud would not be revealed. Miss Murchison also discovers a packet of arsenic hidden in Urquhart's office.

Wimsey has now established motive and means, but not opportunity. But after re-examining the details of Boyes' famous last dinner (and perusing A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, in which the poet likens reading dark poems to King Mithridates' self-immunization against poisons), he realises that Urquhart laced an omelette with arsenic and shared it with Boyes after having built up an immunity to the poison with small doses over a long period. (This possibility was accepted by the science of the time, but it is now believed that long-term consumption of arsenic would cause many health problems: a fact which is pointed out in The Late Scholar, a much later Wimsey novel.)[1] Wimsey tricks Urquhart into an admission before witnesses.

At Harriet's retrial the prosecution presents no case and she is set free. Exhausted by her ordeal, she again rejects Wimsey’s proposal of marriage. Lord Peter finally persuades Parker to propose to Peter's sister, Mary. Also the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot, Wimsey's friend and contact for the stock market, finds a long-delayed domestic bliss with Rachel Levy, the daughter of the murder victim in Whose Body?.


Literary significance and criticism

...highest among the masterpieces. It has the strongest possible element of suspense – curiosity and the feeling one shares with Wimsey for Harriet Vane. The clues, the enigma, the free-love question, and the order of telling could not be improved upon. As for the somber opening, with the judge's comments on how to make an omelet, it is sheer genius.[2]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Strong Poison was adapted for television by Philip Broadley in 1987 as part of a series starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane.

It was adapted for radio three times:

Broadcast Lord Peter Harriet Vane Charles Parker Adaption
25.05.1963 Frank Duncan Mary Wimbush Timothy West Felix Felton
17.06.1973 Ian Carmichael Ann Bell Gabriel Woolf Chris Miller
02.10.1999 Simon Russell Beale Emma Fielding Nicholas Farrell Michael Bakewell

Relation to real life

A section of the plot is autobiographical. The part about the Bohemian relationship between Harriet and Boyes was inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers' fraught relationship with fellow-author John Cournos. Cournos wanted her to ignore social mores and live with him without marriage, but she wanted to marry and have children. After a year of agony between 1921 and 1922, she learned that Cournos had claimed to be against marriage only to test her devotion, and she broke off with him.

Following this Sayers became involved in another relationship which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In 1924–25, in the period of her life following the delivery, Sayers wrote eleven letters to John Cournos about their unhappy relationship, her relationship with Bill White, and that with her son. The letters are now housed at Harvard University. Both Sayers and Cournos eventually fictionalised their experience: Sayers in Strong Poison, published in 1930, and Cournos in The Devil is an English Gentleman, published in 1932.

Literary References


  1. Blum, Debra (20 December 2011). "The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for a Deadly Dinner". Speakeasy Science. PLOS blogs.
  2. Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
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