The Later Novels: Murder and Manners

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 13,976 words

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[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Durkin surveys Sayers's late novels--from Strong Poison in 1930 to Busman's Honeymoon in 1937--stressing the author's contributions to the detective story genre, especially her introduction of elements from the novel of manners to the detective formula.]

Convinced that, if the detective story were to survive as a significant genre, it must be brought closer to the novel of manners, Miss Sayers decided that she could accomplish this only if she stopped writing about Lord Peter Wimsey and his set. To banish him effectively she planned to write a novel in which he would fall in love, marry, and then drop out of existence, leaving her free to envision new characters in situations which would allow her to make some thought-provoking observations aimed to elicit intelligent responses from her readers. So she settled down to write Strong Poison, the novel designed to bring Lord Peter's life to a swift close.

I. Strong Poison

Strong Poison, 1930, opens with the murder trial of Harriet Vane, accused of killing her lover, Philip Boyes, who has died from arsenic poisoning.1 The judge summarizes the case, reminding the jury of these pertinent facts: Miss Vane, a writer of detective stories, had lived with Boyes as his mistress for almost a year, then left him after a serious quarrel. Later, under assumed names, she bought arsenic in various forms, such as rat poisoning and weed-killer. On three occasions after such purchases, she and Boyes spent some time together; after each visit he suffered an attack of acute gastritis. One evening after dining with his cousin Mr. Urquhart, with whom he was staying, he visited Miss Vane, but as he returned to the Urquhart residence he became so ill that the taxi driver had to assist him into the house. After three days of excruciating suffering, Boyes died. Later, when gossip created a stir, the body was exhumed; analysis revealed that Boyes had consumed a fatal dose of arsenic several days before his death. Mr. Urquhart testified that there was nothing suspicious about the food served at dinner that memorable evening: he, Boyes, and the servants had partaken of each dish. No one except Boyes suffered any ill effects.

Conceding that Miss Vane's literary agent has testified that her forthcoming novel concerns a case of arsenic poisoning, the judge advises the jury: "This woman is charged with having murdered her former lover by arsenic. He undoubtedly did take arsenic, and if you are satisfied that she gave it to him with intent to injure or kill him, and that he died of it, then it is your duty to find her guilty of murder" (34).

The circumstantial evidence fails to convince one jury member, Miss Climpson, who in turn influences others; the trial ends with a hung jury, and a new trial is scheduled for one month later. Having fallen in love with Harriet Vane, Lord Peter is determined to prove her innocence. With the permission of Sir Impey...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420099987