Dorothy Sayers reading notes: Strong Poison

strong poisonThe triumphant return of reading notes! This month, I plan to re-read and talk about four mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. Specifically, those which feature both Harriet Vane & Lord Peter Wimsey, since Harriet + Peter = otp forever. As always, these posts may (will!) contain massive spoilers so beware if you wish to avoid them.

Strong Poison is the fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and the first to feature Peter’s love interest and eventual wife, Harriet Vane. As the book opens, Harriet is accused of the murder of an ex-lover, Philip Boyes, and it’s up to Peter to prove her innocence and save her life.

I have strong feelings about Harriet Vane which are: HARRIET IS THE BEST AND I LOVE HER FOREVER. She is actually one of my all-time favorite heroines/main characters and have said on the record that I aspire to be part Harriet, part Tiffany Aching, with maybe a dash of Miss Marple and Sophie Hatter thrown in.

So, it’s somewhat odd to remember that when I first read Strong Poison, I actually felt fairly resentful of Harriet. Here she was, not appreciating Lord Peter! Refusing to marry him, which I both understood and found very frustrating! Partly, I was 19 at the time, and partly I had not read Gaudy Night, which is a perfect book full of perfection which I would not change or alter in any way.

And the more I’ve read and re-read Strong Poison, the more I’ve come to appreciate Harriet’s choices in that book. There’s a certain narrative set up that implies she will swoon gratefully at Peter’s feet, accepting his embrace and adoring him forever. But then she doesn’t. She refuses his offer of marriage and the book ends with them separated, with Harriet surrounded by her female friends & supporters.

Harriet refuses narrative inevitability. She refuses loss of integrity (in fact, this fits very well with her refusal to marry Philip Boyes when it becomes clear that his offer of marriage is in the nature of a prize for passing a test). She refuses to lose herself in Peter which, because he is still himself a character in flux, she is quite right in thinking she would. And in doing so, she allows the growth of real love, passion, and respect between the two of them.


So, having written a several hundred word paean to Harriet Vane (<3 <3 <3), the actual book is also one of my favorites to re-read. It’s on the slim side, as Sayers’s earlier LPW books all are. And the mystery itself is complex and ingenious.

The judge’s speech at the beginning of the book is a marvelous example of how to write a character without agreeing with them, and who the narrative will totally disprove, and who you want and expect the readership to disagree with and dislike. I always finish that section by, quite frankly, wanting to bop him on the nose.

I also love the way Sayers plays with expectations in the person of the “elderly spinster” One assumes she will disapprove of the worldly and immoral Miss Vane, but then she marvelously turns out to be the stubborn and conscientious Miss Climpson! Who saves Harriet by refusing to accept a guilty verdict when she doesn’t believe it! Hurrah Miss Climpson!

In both of these cases–and in fact throughout the book–Sayers’s facility of description is on display. She paints a vivid image of people and scenes in a few sentences and a scattering of dialogue. And here she has not only Peter & Harriet (who converse largely in quotations and allusions) but Miss Climpson, Bill Rumm, the artistic sets Harriet & Philip Boyes were involved in. There’s a sense both of deep understanding and a quick sketch.

But at the same time, Sayers does have her blind spots and I can’t ignore the fact that the way the Jewish characters in this book are talked about was really gross–the more so perhaps because of real-life situations at the moment. For someone who is normally so generously understanding of her character, it’s all the more glaring. Regardless of whether Sayers herself was anti-Semitic, the words on the page are. And while I love this book forever, it also forever has that asterisk.

On the plus side, the treatment of the female characters is thoughtful and nuanced. Sayers was very concerned, both within and outside of her fiction, with questions of women & and their place in the world. We see that here, in Harriet’s refusal to be treated as an object, either by Philip Boyes or by Peter Wimsey, as well as in Miss Climpson and her Bureau–which basically exists to take down men attempting to prey on vulnerable women. And as well, in a different light, in the fact that Peter himself does see women as people, accepting them on their own terms (as in the case of Eiluned and the tea kettle). This was for me, one of his nicest and most human points in this book.


In Strong Poison, as opposed to Have His Carcase, which I’ll talk about next week, the mystery is at the service of the romance. And I want to end by talking about this. I love Harriet and Peter separately, but I love them maybe even more in their relationship with each other.

In large part this is because, as Sayers herself said, it isn’t until Peter falls in love with Harriet (immediately, desperately, hopelessly, and yet not entirely egotistically) that he turns into a real person. In the earlier books, he is the pattern of a gentleman detective, flying in from America to save his brother at trial, just to pick one example. But Harriet (I like to imagine) was always too much herself to allow him to remain a monocled cliche.  And so he becomes “a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.” (quotation from the essay above)

And so, necessarily within Strong Poison, there is a sense of alteration, of the world unmade and remade. Of yourself unmade and remade. When an old friend asks Peter not to change, he feels, “for the first time the dull and angry helplessness which is the first warning stroke of the triumph of mutability…Whether his present enterprise failed or succeeded, things would never be the same again.” (Strong Poison, Chapter 8) On the one hand, he is being transformed into something arguably better; on the other hand, he is necessarily leaving past foolishnesses behind (and finding a new set, to be fair).

So, Strong Poison does not end in lovers’ meeting–not yet, at any rate. But Sayers, by writing a story which shows the main characters within it as real people, by resisting the easy ending that she might have written, has begun to turn her detective stories–wonderful but trope-filled–into something else, both harder and more beautiful.

Book source: personal library100_4112

Book information: 1930, adult mystery

Finally, I am unable to resist adding a picture of my cat because I named him Wimsey and he is a glorious creature.


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Favorite middle grade mystery books

favorite mg mysteriesI decided that it would be fun to take a look at a few of my favorite middle grade mysteries. I love mystery stories, especially when I’m looking for something thought-provoking but also usually fairly quick. I feel like middle grade mysteries are often not talked about as much, but I really enjoy them! Some of these books are from recent years, while others are quite a bit older.

Murder is Bad Manners by Robin Stevens (Wells & Wong #1): Best friends team up to solve a murder in a 1930s English boarding school. One of my favorite books from this year for sure!

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry: I went back and forth on whether this one was mg or YA (Berry has written both) but ultimately I went with mg. A group of wayward girls have hide the fact that someone poisoned their headmistress and her brother while also trying to find out who.

The Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G Flake: Octobia May is a young African-American girl in the 1950s, with many rules about what she can and can’t do. None of those involve solving crimes, but Octobia does it anyway.

Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud: This one is a mystery/fantasy series. In each installment (to date) the team of Lockwood and his friends Lucy and George, solve some sort of supernatural crime. The fantastic elements are wonderfully spooky, but the mysteries are also really well done.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd: When Ted and Kate’s cousin Salim disappears mysteriously, it’s up to the siblings to figure out what happened.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: This is a mystery wrapped in a story about time travel and fate, and Madeline L’Engle. I loved it, and I definitely cried.

Pish Posh by Ellen Potter: Clara Frankofile is an unusual girl. She sits in her parents’ restaurant and points out those who shouldn’t be there. She doesn’t have many friends, and she relates better to adults than kids. But then she discovers that something mysterious is happening in the restaurant and she has to find out why.


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Top Ten Tuesday: Series I need to finish

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

  1. Fuse and Burn by Julianna Baggott (Pure series)
  2. Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear (Eternal Sky series)
  3. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce series)
  4. Chanur’s Venture; The Kif Strikes Back; Chanur’s Homecoming by C.J. Cherryh (Chanur series)
  5. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (Lymond Chronicles)
  6. Blood Maidens; Magistrates of Hell; The Kindred of Darkness by Barbara Hambly (James Asher series)
  7. The Final Descent by Rick Yancey (Monstrumologist series)
  8. A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith (Court Duel series)
  9. Iron Wind; Heavy Fire by Dru Pagliassotti (Clockwork Heart series)
  10. Mirage; Horizon by Jenn Reese (Above World trilogy)


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Recent Reading: non-fiction and YA

hissing cousinsHissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer: I picked up this double biography of Eleanor & Alice Roosevelt because, I mean, look at that tile! How could I not? It turned out to be (as far as I could judge) a well-researched and well-written look at the complex intertwining lives of these two cousins. Peyser & Dwyer examine the ways in which each woman lived up to her reputation, as well as the ways in which she didn’t. They also look at the long-standing feud between them, and the ways in which this both was and wasn’t reflected in their actual relationship. Definitely recommended for people interested in early 20th c. American history, or women’s history, or complicated family dynamics. My only quibble is that the authors seem reluctant to talk about the wider social ramifications of, say, Theodore Roosevelt and his beliefs and policies in favor of a mostly-positive personal portrait.

The Dthe disenchantmentsisenchantments by Nina LaCour: I picked this one up after reading and loving LaCour’s more recent Everything Leads to You. The Disenchantments has the quirky, artsy, adventure/quest that I enjoyed in ELtY, but for me it lacked some of the depth of character that I saw in that book. Then again, it’s also true that this book falls into the pattern of a boy interacting with an unattainable, brilliant, and unknowable girl. It’s well written, and yet the pattern itself annoys me; if anything, I wanted this story from Bev’s point of view. Still, LaCour’s prose is smoothly enjoyable and the story as a whole does a nice job of looking at that transition from high school to college, as well as the realization that the adults in your life are actually human and complex.

devil you knowThe Devil You Know by Trish Doller: The Devil You Know has been very highly praised by several people I trust, and I really liked Doller’s previous books. This one is part coming-of-age, part romance, and part mystery. I had two somewhat different reactions to it. First, like Dessen’s Saint Anything, I thought Doller did a great job of writing an extremely readable book, which also takes on big issues. I really admired the way she wrote this situation where things slowly start to unravel. And the fact that Cadie is never judged or shamed for the choices she makes also was great. On the other hand, I figured out the mystery really quickly. That said, this is 1) a book written for teens and not for mystery-obsessed adults (me) and 2) not the reason I was reading this book and therefore wasn’t as much of a problem as it might have been. So despite that fact, I would definitely recommend this one if you want that combination of big topics and readability

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A Wish Upon Jasmine by Laura Florand

wish upon jasmineA Wish Upon Jasmine is the 2nd full length book in Florand’s new series, set in Provence. I’ve been really enjoying this series, and this book was no exception–in fact, it might be my favorite so far! Several of the themes carry over from previous stories, especially the relationships within the Rosier family, and the secrets they keep from outsider and from each other.

Jasmine Bianchi’s father was from Provence, and after his death she gets word that she has been given a property in the town where he grew up. She is very good at what she does–creating new perfumes–and yet she’s been unable to shake the image of an old perfume called Spoiled Brat. Provence seems like a place to start over, since she’s still mourning her father and also a brief relationship that ended badly and that she sees as a betrayal. At the same time, she is wary of the Rosiers, based on the stories her dad told her when he was still alive.

Damien Rosier is ruthless, heartless. Everyone knows that. But in fact, he works to protect his family, to protect the town and region and keep it going despite changing times and business practices. And secretly, he wants someone to see him as something other than a shark. He thought Jasmine might have been that person once, but then he took over her company and she disappeared. When she shows up again on his home turf, he knows he will have to tread carefully.

I really loved this one a lot. The characters worked very well for me, despite the fact that the initial set-up might seem a little coincidental. Jasmine wants to hold a grudge against Damien, but one of her gifts is seeing things clearly, and it quickly becomes obvious that the heartless Damien Rosier she has in her head doesn’t entirely match reality. And Damien’s combination of ruthlessness and the feeling of being trapped in that role while no one really sees him also worked really well for me. (Damien = swoon fest, basically.)

I also love the way Florand writes about the land and the family history. It gives the love story a depth and texture that makes the whole thing so rich and beautiful. Each of the three stories in this series so far have looked at different ways of interacting with and reacting to history and responsibility, while at the same time, they have also built on each other, shading in different layers and meanings. Finally–I am very very interested in Antoine Vallier, the lawyer who attempts to go up against Damien. I’ll say no more!

Laura Florand is a Twitter friend and all around lovely person–she offered a review copy of this one, which I happily accepted. However, I am also genuinely a fan of her books and all of the opinions in this review are absolutely my own.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2015, self-published; adult romance


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Links from around the web: 9-3-15

I have a lot of thoughts about this profile of the two girls involved in the so-called Slenderman stabbing. Mostly, the emotional landscape of the friendship was really familiar to me from middle school, eerily so. That kind of ambivalent intimacy, the shared fantasy worlds that you both believe in and know aren’t entirely real. I don’t have firm conclusions but it definitely made me think a lot about friendships and middle school.

A Poirot Novel Where No One Is Murdered And He Gets To Eat Everything He Wanted Without Interruption. I would TOTALLY read this book and all of its sequels. And eat all of the food.

If you’re a bullet journal fan and/or love reading about other people’s processes (meeeee), you may also be excited to know that the official bullet journal site has a blog now!

There’s still some time to apply to be a Cybils judge! I highly recommend doing this, as the Cybils are fabulous and the people involved are awesome.

No More Memory Holes” is a really important post if you’re invested in the ongoing SF issues.

The Wikipedia entry on Belle Epoque dandy Evander Berry Wall makes for some fun reading!

I found “No Country for Young Women” insightful and familiar: “Even leaving aside the news, the street, and the internet, if you’re a girl who reads a lot of history, and you grow into a woman who reads a lot more, you spend your entire reading life slicing your toes on nails sticking up through the floor, because as you pick your way through the hostile territory of the past, you’ll do so via the accounts of fêted men who believe half of our species is cunning but stupid, intrinsically trivial, intellectually dead.”

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September releases I’m excited about

So many new books this month! So much awesome!

pocket full of murdersorcerer to the crownbinti

A Pocket Full of Murder by R.J. Anderson

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

Lockwood & Co: The Hollow Boy

Nomad by William Alexander

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

The Buccaneers’ Code by Caroline Carlson

Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Beastly Bones by William Ritter

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

dumplin'the hired girlupdraft


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