From reality to fiction

Madeleine Smith at her trial for murder in 1857
 Dorothy L. Sayers' Strong poison is one of the best of her Lord Peter Wimsey series. In fact rated purely as a crime novel it takes a bit of beating. This is probably because of all her tales this is the truest to life inspired by the Madeleine Smith, Florence Maybrick, and Armstrong poisoning cases. Added to this is a purely autobiographical element - Harriet Vane's relationship with her erstwhile lover Philip Boyes is based on Dorothy L. Sayers' own experiences, while the crime at the heart of the novel draws heavily on all the above cases.

I think that Strong poison is probably one of the best examples of transmuting reality into fiction. The influences are clear, but the novel remains resolutely itself. And very clever it is too. Lord Peter Wimsey meets his beloved Harriet in unfortunate circumstances, she's on trial for her life at the Old Bailey. Wimsey is convinced from the start that she's innocent of the murder of her lover by arsenic, but it seems equally impossible to plant the blame on anyone else. The most likely point at which Boyes could have ingested the drug is also the one point when it seems that he was completely unable to do so. As Wimsey starts to unpack the case a glimmer of a motive begins to shine, but how did the guilty party commit the crime?

Ok, the denouement is a little clumsy (if dramatic), but the events leading up to it are wonderfully written with a great build-up to the climax. I've always adored this novel, but I think that having read the Notable British Trials accounts of the poison cases that I've noted above really added to my enjoyment as part of my admiration for this novel is purely down to the cleverness with which Sayers takes events and reforms them for her own use. This is one of those novels, where any aficionado of crime fiction will guess the identity of the murderer early on but will be hard pressed to work out how the crime was committed.

Altogether it's an excellent novel - the love scenes (although that's really too strong a phrase for them) are rather clumsy, but necessary as Harriet is about to become an important part of the rest of the series. Other than that it is completely brilliant. One of the very best of classic crime fiction, indeed a castaway comment early on would be enormously influential in Agatha Christie's later classic, the previously reviewed, The body in the library.


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