A detective on Christmas: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison

I blogged about a Christmas film noir, but I didn’t actually mean to read a Christmas detective story as well.  But Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison was calling out to me from the shelf where I’d stuck it, just above a collection of Poe’s mystery stories.  I actually bought the book several years ago in Atlanta, and I’d packed it up and moved it across the country with me, but I’d still never read it.

Well, I had tried once, when I originally purchased it.  But the first chapters are a bit slow, and my attention span was not great, so it returned to the shelf.  This time around, however, I pushed through the clunky opening and found myself totally taken with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The book begins at the end of a murder trial: a neat device for catching the reader up on the details quickly, but the voice of the stodgy judge is a bit much to wade through.  Luckily, he disappears as soon as the hung jury refuses to deliver a verdict as to whether detective novelist Harriet Vane poisoned her one-time lover with arsenic.  Wimsey has been present at the trial and really taken to Vane, who he knows didn’t commit the murder.  He vows to clear her name, find the real killer if he can, and then marry Vane.  She’s grateful for the first two but has some other ideas about the last one.

The Christmas aspect is actually minimal; with the retrial set after the winter holiday, Wimsey spends the Christmas season making his investigation (and trying to convince the Chief Detective Inspector to marry his sister already).  But Sayers uses the holiday setting to get in a few witty jabs:

“Great bore, Christmas, isn’t it? All the people one hates most gathered together in the name of goodwill and all that.”

Sayers creates Wimsey as a sarcastic but lovable aristocrat who has friends in all sorts of unexpected places, always ready to help him out when needed.  I particularly love his “Cattery,” the temp typist pool he maintains and sends off to work typing jobs/do recon on suspects.  In fact, all the secondary characters, who adore Wimsey and help him in his sleuthing, are wonderfully drawn and a joy to follow.

It’s worth noting that Sayers herself was a pretty badass lady, not unlike Vane.  She was one of the first women to take a degree from Oxford and was made a Baker Street Irregular.

Sadly, it looks like the next two Peter and Harriet books, Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night, are currently out of print.  I’ll be tracking down used copies as soon as I can, because I can’t wait to read more featuring the two of them.

So you like Sherlock Holmes — and ladies too

(reprinted from a former blog of mine)

It’s possible that, like me, you’re enraptured with the new film, but sorely want more of the awesome ladies of that world. To that end, I’ve put together a little post about some of my favorite ladies, both from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works and other, similar creations.

Mary Morstan

Our darling, daring Mary sweeps in and catches Watson’s notice almost immediately. And why wouldn’t she? In the film she’s gorgeous, friendly, and slightly wicked (“Take Watson—” “I intend to.”). On the page she’s much more well-behaved, but still brave, headstrong, and endlessly comforting to those around her.

The Sign of the Four is the best place to find Mary in the stories. (You can read it for free online.) Mary essentially drives the plot of the novel, coming to Holmes with a case involving a strange yearly gift, a missing father, and a note promising that she’ll soon get justice, for she is a wronged woman. Her romance with Watson develops sweetly even as her case goes awry.

At Camberwell I found Miss Morstan a little weary after her night’s adventures, but very eager to hear the news. Mrs. Forrester, too, was full of curiosity. I told them all that we had done, suppressing, however, the more dreadful parts of the tragedy. Thus, although I spoke of Mr. Sholto’s death, I said nothing of the exact manner and method of it. With all my omissions, however, there was enough to startle and amaze them.

“It is a romance!” cried Mrs. Forrester. “An injured lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl.”

“And two knight-errants to the rescue,” added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me.

Mary also shows up in a handful of short stories, though for obvious reasons she’s never the focus.  Still, there are some wonderful character bits thrown in, some throwbacks to the novel, and some lulz as she fondly watches Watson run off to do what he does with Holmes.

All the stories are available to read online.  Generally, Mary will appear in the stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. (I’d love to make a masterlist, as I can’t find one online, but haven’t got the time currently.)  She dies at some point after Holmes’ “death” in “The Final Problem.”  (Poor Watson, thinking both his great loves were deceased.)

Mary also appears in a number of works set in the world of Holmes, written by various and sundry authors.  There is a detailed list available here.

Irene Adler

Oh, Irene.  She has quickly become one of my favorite things about the movie, the canon, everything.  Irene appears in only one original story, but what an appearance it is:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.

Those are the opening lines to “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes’ finds himself bested by a woman — no, the woman.  Irene has flair and style, she’s a talented performer, a bit of a vixen, and an expert at disguise.  She’s thought to have been based on any one of a number of scandalous, lovely ladies from the time period (my personal favorite choice is Lola Montez).

Irene is mentioned briefly in several stories: “A Case of Identity,” “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” “The Five Orange Pips,” and “His Last Bow.” Conan Doyle clearly kept her in his mind when writing successive stories; it’s such a shame she never truly shows back up.

Luckily for us, Irene appears in many works by other authors.  I highly recommend Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series, beginning with Good Night, Mr. Holmes. Her Irene is a true diva, but also a sweet and caring woman dedicated to helping her friends (some of whom are quite famous in their own right).

There are many sites dedicated to Irene, all with interesting tidbits of information and speculation.

Violet Hunter

Violet Hunter may only get one story (“The Copper Beeches“), but she’s every bit as awesome as Mary and Irene.  She basically shows up at Holmes’ door  (well, okay, she sends a note first) and secures his friendship and protection in about 5 minutes.  She’s just a plain, down-on-her-luck governess, but her common sense is uncommonly well-developed, and Holmes spends the entire story praising her.

“You seem to me to have acted all through this matter like a very brave and sensible girl, Miss Hunter. Do you think that you could perform one more feat? I should not ask it of you if I did not think you a quite exceptional woman.”

He doesn’t even seem to notice that she’s dragged them right out of their reasonable world and into a Gothic horror story, which is pretty tricky and clever on her part, if you think about it.  (How else would they get there?)

Violet gets dismissed from Holmes’ mind far too quickly, but she lives on in other authors’ work (you’ll have to scroll down to find her).  She shares some screen (page?) time with Irene in the story “An Ideal Husband,” which is one of those stories that gets recced everywhere you go in Holmes fandom, and is therefore most certainly worth reading.

Madelyn Mack

Why yes, I am reccing this again.  melannen has done a much better job describing Madelyn than I ever could.  Go, read, love.

Harriet Vane

Okay, confession time.  I haven’t actually read anything featuring Harriet Vane.  Yet.  But I’m planning on it, like really soon.  As soon as I finish Good Night, Mr. Holmes.  But I couldn’t leave her out!  She’s too wonderful.  (Confession number two: that’s not actually her in the picture.  It’s Dorothy L. Sayers, the writer.  Who is also too wonderful.)

Harriet, herself a detective novelist, began appearing in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsley novels — first in Strong Poison, then Have His Carcase, then Gaudy Night, and on — as a way for Sayers to marry Lord Peter off and finish writing about him.  Unfortunately (fortunately for us), they were too great together, and simply demanded that more stories be written.

Sayers’ is credited with writing the first feminist detective novel, and judging by the opening lines of Have His Carcase, I have to say I agree:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom.  Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.

The three books I mentioned above were also adapted by the BBC in 1987; you can watch the title sequence here.  It really makes me want to see the episodes, which are, amazingly enough, available to stream on Netflix.

Sally Lockhart

Sally has a distinct advantage on all of the previous ladies (with the possible exception of Miss Harriet Vane), in that she may live in the Victorian era, but she was brought to life in the contemporary period (and by young adult lit hero, Philip Pullman, no less).  Still, if we’re going to talk late 19th and early 20th century crime-solving ladies possessed of a certain flair for independence and being awesome, she absolutely must be on the list.

The traits and skills Sally possesses — including a head for numbers, fearlessness, and a giant trained dog — allow her not only to solve mysteries, but also to set herself up with an independent life and business, and to rescue her friends from bankruptcy.  She doesn’t let society’s view of her work keep her from doing what she loves and is best at.  But she isn’t so wrapped up in her work that she ignores romance entirely, either.  Pullman has truly crafted one of the most well-rounded female characters ever to walk the streets of Victorian London.

Not only are the books in her trilogy fun and full of adventure, the first two (The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North) were recently made into excellent BBC adaptations, starring a whole roster of hotties, not least of which is the new Doctor, Matt Smith.