Rereading Strong Poison always makes me feel like I’m visiting with long-lost friends. Here they are again, the Sayers repertory company: Lord Peter, his valet, the ever-efficient Bunter, Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, the somewhat ridiculous but useful Freddy Arbuthnot, the masterful barrister, Impey Biggs, and the bibulous reporter, Salcombe Hardy. And, of course, the gentle humor and not-so-gentle erudition of the author.
This is the first book in the four part sequence that features Lord Peter Wimsey’s romance with Harriet Vane. But the romance doesn’t overshadow the mystery, which is an intriguing one. Who poisoned Harriet’s former lover, Philip Boyes? And how was the poison administered? Although Harriet does seem to know altogether too much about arsenic, Peter is sure she isn’t guilty, and he has thirty days to discover who is.
The real heroines of this story are the “superfluous” females, Miss Climpson and Miss Murchison. (In 1920’s England there were over a million women who would never marry because of the great numbers of men who were killed or maimed in World War One – they were thus “superfluous.”) Lord Peter, recognizing their intelligence and ingenuity, staffs a “typing bureau” with these women, and employs them to investigate matters where their talents are most useful. In Strong Poison, Miss Murchison finds employment as a typist for a suspicious lawyer (who is Boyes’s cousin) and Miss Climpson befriends the nurse of a wealthy, aged actress (who is Boyes’s great-aunt). Between them, they uncover the facts that point to the murderer. Then it is Lord Peter’s job to figure out how the murder was carried out.
Some of the scenes in this book are pure comedy: when the Bible-quoting Bill Rumm teaches Miss Murchison how to pick locks, when Miss Climpson finds the great-aunt’s will by means of a seance, and when Peter’s family gathers at the ancestral home for Christmas dinner, Sayers is at her wittiest. The scenes among London’s bohemian set, which Sayers knew well, are wonderful social satire.
With ingenious plotting, clever dialogue, social commentary, and a little romance, Strong Poison is one of the tastiest of the Golden Age mysteries.