Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love.
As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.
Revisiting the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in order has been quite instructive for me as I have come to appreciate the evolution of the character. In my review of his first adventure, Whose Body?, I noted that while the affectations and core personality traits were all basically there, the character often read as flippant and tiresome. Those traits were gradually toned down in the subsequent stories as it was made clearer that this personality has been, at least to some extent, cultivated to make him appear less threatening.
The previous story in the series, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, had presented readers with a more sharply defined and sympathetic version of the character. While he was still capable of flippant witticisms, there we saw him act out of care for another, fighting on their behalf rather than just engaging in criminology as a hobby. This book takes that idea one step further, seeing him become involved to save a young woman he has fallen in love with from the gallows.
That character is, of course, the mystery novelist Harriet Vane who will go on in subsequent novels to become his partner in detection. This change significantly alters the tone and themes of the series in those books but that of course will be a discussion for later reviews. Here she plays only a limited role, briefly appearing in just a couple of chapters and to provide inspiration for Lord Peter’s efforts to uncover the truth.
The reason for this is that at the start of the novel Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of having poisoned her former lover, the novelist Philip Boyes, using arsenic. Her supposed motive is that she had agreed to live with him without being married having been convinced of his opposition to the institution, only for him to subsequently offer her marriage after all. She clearly felt angry and betrayed, leaving him.
The problem for Harriet is that she had been identified buying arsenic, apparently to test to see how easily it could be procured for a future novel and no one else seems to have a clear motive. Lord Peter refuses to believe her guilty, not based on any evidence but based on his instinct and strength of feeling about her and tells her that he will work on her behalf to find evidence to acquit her, telling her that he wants to marry her when it is all over.
This initial point of attraction is, for me, the weakest part of the story as I think Peter’s attraction to her has to be quite superficial. I think it could be fairly categorized as an example of the love at first sight trope as he wants to marry her before he has ever spoken with her himself. Sayers even seems to draw a parallel between Peter and other men, noting that Harriet has already received a number of other offers of marriage since being arrested. Still, I think the reader can infer reasons for that attraction based on his perception of her character and smartly the author does not give us the gratification of a quick acceptance of his affections.
While the initial attraction may be superficial, I love the way these characters verbally tease and play with each other. Some of those moments are quite sharp and witty – a favorite exchange comes when Harriet suggests that he is overlooking that she has had a lover to which he replies that he has had several himself and can ‘produce quite good testimonials’. These moments have a charm and energy to them that lifts the piece and I enjoy any moments the pair are together.
Which helps make up a little for the rest of the book. As appealing as Lord Peter’s flirtations with Harriet are, I find the mystery plotline here to be rather underwhelming.
Part of the problem I have with this is that the killer’s identity is quite clear from early on in the novel. This is not because there is much reason for the investigation to settle on him but rather because there is simply no other suspect. Now, I’m the last person to complain about knowing the killer’s identity but if you are going to make their identity clear then you might as well commit to the inverted form properly as in Unnatural Death and either give us greater access to their thoughts or more directly establish a relationship between them and the sleuth.
A game of cat and mouse is only really fun if both parties are aware that they are playing. While there are a couple of moments where criminal and sleuth interact, there is not much back and forth or manipulation to be had here. Instead a lot of time is spent in what I consider filler material, with characters working to secretly obtain information. Those sequences are often quite memorable and entertaining such as a very clever seance sequence or the visit to a rather unorthodox Christian fellowship meeting but these passages move very slowly and little of what we learn will surprise.
In addition to learning the killer’s identity, the reader will also need to detect a motive and understand how they did it. The killer’s motive is, once again, relatively straightforward though I appreciate it does convincingly explain why the killer needs to act at that precise moment. A problem is that, as with proving the killer’s identity, the process by which we learn the killer’s motive feels strung out. Another is that surely almost everything that gets found would be inadmissable because of the way in which the information is gained (though perhaps the law on that point was very different in Britain in the early 30s).
Which brings me, finally, to the means by which it is managed. This is perhaps the book’s most creative idea, though it probably wouldn’t work in reality. While I think some parts are basically not guessable because they rely on prior knoweldge, the reader should be able to work out the significance of some key bits of information and start to piece those ideas together to at least give a general idea of how the poison must have been delivered. Those ideas are clever and exciting. I can certainly understand how it might work for others.
So overall then I found this to be rather a mixed bag (and that’s not even touching on the rather uncomfortable paragraphs where characters discuss Jewish bankers). The good bits of the story are both successful and interesting but I struggled with how bland the novel’s villain felt and had problems with the general pacing of the tale. Sayers was certainly capable of better and I think, were Harriet not introduced in this story, it would not be remembered anywhere near so fondly.
The Verdict: This successfully introduced some elements that would benefit later stories. Unfortunately the case feels padded, unremarkable and overrated.
This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Golden Age read.
Curious whether the method used here would work? Several years ago The Guardian published a story discussing it, basically saying that while the science was credible in 1930s understanding, it doesn’t stand up today. Be warned that the article does give the solution away so read at your own risk.
Nick at the Grandest Game in the World considers this one of Sayers’ best, appreciating the witty writing and the inclusion of Miss Climpson who, yes, is ‘as splendid as ever’.