Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1929, 567p.
Strong Poison opens during the closing moments of the murder trial of Harriet Vane, who stands accused of poisoning her former lover with arsenic. The judge is summing up, and we witness his summations from the gallery, with the commentary of various spectators. The victim, Philip Boyes, ate a meal with his cousin, then went for coffee with Vane, then fell ill before returning to his cousin's house, where he died three rather vividly described days later.

Despite appearing to be an open-and-shut case, the jury is hung, and a retrial is ordered. Lord Peter Wimsey, who is among those in the gallery, has come to two conclusions over the course of the trial: Vane is innocent of the crime, and that he must marry her. Lord Peter by this time (his fifth novel) is a somewhat famous amateur sleuth, and with Vane spared for the moment from the gallows, he attaches himself as an agent for the defence. The re-trial will likely begin in about a month, which Lord Peter hopes will be enough time to both save her life, and successfully court Vane.

My wife and I have been conducting a lazy survey of the history of detective fiction, and P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction1 has been something of a roadmap. She identifies Wilkie Collins excellent Victorian The Moonstone as the first true contemporary detective novel, and we started there2. Between the wars in England was considered "the golden age" of detective fiction, made most famous by Agatha Christie. James encourages the serious reader to skip over Christie and look at some of the other excellent female writers of the time, including Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh3. Sayers was first up in our survey, and this was our initial selection4.

We picked an entrance work that is well in to the series, which always has challenges. Strong Poison was reportedly one of the highlights of the series — she had her primary characters down, and was skilled in what she was doing. Authors have to strike a balance between repeating descriptions (and potentially boring faithful readers), or leaving new readers behind. Sayers errs a bit on the side of leaving new readers behind. I was 60% of the way through this story before I had any sort of a mental picture of Wimsey (apparently he wears a monocle!) and the partnership between Wimsey and Miss Climpson was hazy for me at best5.

Wimsey himself was a much less serious character than I had been expecting. He spends the bulk of the novel cooing piffle and massaging his temples. The heavy-lifting is left to an army of cast-off women in his employ ("the cattery"), apparently a standing army for such purposes. While I think Sayers certainly has the early century English aristocrat painted, (at least in compelling caricature: a stroll in the garden with a constant burble of jovial twaddle,) it starts to wear on me after a bit. And apparently it wore on Sayers too. A lesson to those starting a detective series, I suppose: If you couldn't stand to spend an afternoon with your character, you will surely be sick of him after a dozen novels.

Given that Sayers appears to be P.D. James' favourite writer from this era, I shouldn't have been surprised by the attempts at social realism here. It feels confined by the genre, something that chafed at Sayers but which she felt was impossible to penetrate. Raymond Chandler famously dismissed the British Golden Age Detective novel (and much of the English detective genre to that point) in his 1950 essay "The Simple Art of Murder"6, and while I don't cast it all away as vigorously as he does, he has his finger on the bulk of the problem here. There is a crime, but everything is penetrated by a surreal British sense of order and gentility. The crime isn't brutish, it is sophisticated. In this type of novel, order is momentarily interrupted but restored in an unreal dashing way. Chandler would seem to wave this all away as profoundly unreal, but there is a reality working away within the unreal form.

Harriet Vane's social situation is an easy example: her concession to reside with her lover outside of marriage taints her in her trial and alters her social standing. When her lover has a change of mind, and decides to marry her after all, Harriet is enraged and refuses. It seems easy to understand from her perspective: she incurred great social cost for something that was obviously a whim of little consequence to him. But many of those surrounding cannot understand her refusal to "patch her honour". The breadth of her agency clearly unsettles many.

The fascinating example to me is Miss Climpson and her "ladies". These are all single women with tremendously precarious standing, common in England after the First World War. With astounding numbers of young men killed in action, a sea of women existed who were unable to marry and restricted in their employment. Lord Peter harnesses this power, depending on their invisibility and deep desire to be useful. Or does he take advantage of their situation? Reading it from this remove, I found aspects of it a little dark. Lord Peter charms and validates these desperate women, who then take great chances and even break laws to further Lord Peter's cause. For me, this dynamic was the most interesting aspect of the book. I couldn't resolve whether Sayers had a stance here at all, which I suppose is what cleaves social realism from political writing. Lord Peter did what he could do, and that he could do it at all is perhaps the point.

And for me, this is where I reject Chandler's thesis that reality must pervade a fictional work to exist at all. It feels like rejecting painting because it isn't three dimensional, or sculpture because the horseman doesn't smell of leather.

It was those moments of reality that made this book so readable. The mystery itself was interesting enough, and familiar and comfortable and suitably tense in places. But those great gold moments where reality pokes through the folds kept me engaged.


  1. Talking about Detective Fiction is an excellent shorter read - far from an exhaustive history of the genre, it is a survey peppered with James' bold and engaging opinions combined with significant thought on the evolution and contexts of the genre.
  2. Kiirstin reviewed Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.
  3. I think that Kiirstin and I might attempt Allingham next in our survey of golden age works, though I have come to the conclusion that I can only avoid Christie for so long.
  4. Kiirstin also reviewed Strong Poison. If you are wondering, she was the one that cheated on the cover; the library edition we read had the striking black and chartreuse cover shown above.
  5. Some research suggests the Climpson and her Cattery enter the series fully established, with little background.
  6. A copy of Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is available online (apparently legally?)


Assorted Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout

There is something about British detective fiction that generally aligns with my sensibilities. Perhaps it is the landscape or the weather that feels familiar yet exotic to my Canadian feet? More likely it comes from the fact that many of the British detectives are thoughtful and somewhat retiring, rather than guns-a-blazin'. Or perhaps that classic British detective fiction is a story of a chaotic lapse, rather than a quest for order in a sea of chaos?

My biases (and some snobbery) aside, there is a lot to like about the Nero Wolfe stories, both in their novelties and in their execution. As mentioned before1, they combine some classic detective fiction staples (the armchair detective, the cerebral genius, the implausible puzzle crimes) with some of the more American hardboiled staples (the hired thugs, the dangerous women, the wise-talking dick). Add to that one of the more unusual Watson-style narrators2, and while the stories aren't always great, they do engage.

A co-worker maintains a little library of Stout in her cube, and over the summer and into the challenging fall, I made my way through five of the novels. I reviewed the first two on their own, but the next three really warrant more of a light survey.

Over My Dead Body
Rex Stout, 1940, 272p.
Over My Dead Body is a fairly early story in the series, and the first to deal with Wolfe's Montenegrin roots3. Two young Montenegrin women approach Wolfe to help one of them deal with an accusation of theft leveled against her. Both work at a fencing studio as instructors. Wolfe is disinterested, but feels forced to act when one of them claims to be Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter.

Archie is dispatched to investigate, and in short order there is a murder and international intrigue (Nazis, spies and Slavic princesses). As with many of these stories, Wolfe seems to be privy to a great number of ideas about the case right from the start. The reader is left in the same boat as poor Archie, to flail around getting ducks lined up for Wolfe's dramatic conclusion. And dramatic it is, though not altogether surprising.

The twists and contrivances pile up a bit thickly here, and all too few of the characters are more than conductors for clues and red-herrings. Scattered through the work are ripe lines, though ripe in both senses: Some cute and charming observations, some that emit an odour that make the eyes water.

The Doorbell Rang
Rex Stout, 1965, 192p.
The Doorbell Rang is my least favourite Wolfe Mystery so far. We zip forward a full quarter century from the previous book, and Wolfe is still tending orchids in his Manhattan brownstone. This is a later and unusually politically motivated novel. Wolfe takes on the (deserving, mind you) target of the malign FBI of the 1960s. As easy as it is to hate that enemy, the story is a fairly unbelievable and adolescent revenge fantasy. There is naturally something satisfying about seeing Wolfe bullying a bully, and there is a sort of boisterous paranoia that lofts the first half of the book along.

Both Wolfe and his client invite the FBI to their table, then need to find a way to flush them back away. While there is little question that the FBI of that era viciously overstepped and needed more transparency and oversight, the in-novel action is largely self-interested. Featuring the FBI in the novel shone a light on the issue, and it referenced a more concrete book for readers to investigate more on their own — but that is an accomplishment of Stout's, not Wolfe's4. While this validates the book as a weapon, it gives the reader only an odd sort of external joy.

Meanwhile, within the story, a man is murdered, apparently by the FBI. And herein lies my other problem with this outing: the cold dead body here becomes a chess piece to be manipulated around the board by Wolfe and Cramer and the FBI in their games with each other. Games with grudge, but little greater end. I find it hard to get invested in a match of egos and balls when you throw a corpse into the equation. It is all true to character, perhaps, but too thin on charm and payoff.

Death of a Doxy
Rex Stout, 1966, 192p.
Death of a Doxy is a much more enjoyable later outing for Nero Wolfe. You can tell that one of Stout's challenges was that once you establish your hero as reticent to take cases, you have to work hard to motivate said hero into involvement. In this case, as with the first, the motivation is a matter of personal honour. Rather than a family commitment, here one of Wolfe's long-standing henchmen has fallen under suspicion of murder.

Orrie Cather has been juggling two women, and one has turned up dead. The live woman is a pure and charming stewardess that Cather wants to marry, and that might prove challenging if he goes to prison for killing the other woman. In short order it seems possible that everyone was blackmailing everyone else. While The Doorbell Rang tackled a contemporary topic, this book seems to whip us back to the 30s, where one might use the word "doxy" in the first place. I didn't realize until the end that I was picturing the cars, costumes and even the rhythms of the 1930s in this book written and presumably set 30+ years later.

Here we have another hard-boiled trope come finally to call on the sexless Wolfe: he's met his match, and she's a woman. She is the dead woman's inexplicable best-friend, nightclub performer Julie Jaquette. We are meant to be captivated by this wilful and cynical kindred spirit of Wolfe, but mostly the shock here is that Wolfe sets aside his natural squeamishness towards women and they have some actual conversations. Jaquette can keep Wolfe on his toes mostly by making an awful lot of sharp turns and pithy one-liners, but sure enough, the effect is indeed charming. Their banter escalates to a caper, which isn't quite as much fun, but Stout can only find so much room in the plot for a friendship.

The treatment of women here is pretty uneven, but this is a work of its time and place. The women are girls, dames, broads, wives or doxies, and few of them are more than that. Jaquette is more, but only in so far as Stout concedes to give her some of the choicer dialogue, and leaves her some uncategorized mysteries that the other women (and frankly, most of the men) aren't afforded. Her wiles are more than just standard issue feminine wiles, and she doesn't feel like furniture in her scenes with Wolfe and Archie.

I found the climactic act of deduction is a too-pat "misjudgment of hubris", but as usual it is made up for with a lot of movement and drama. Of the three works, it was the tightest and most satisfying.

With another couple dozen titles in this series waiting patiently for me on a co-worker's shelf, I am sure I will return to Wolfe's brownstone. But having sampled his work thoroughly, I think I will wait until the cottage is aired out and there is some sun on the back porch again.


  1. Previously, I reviewed the first and second novels in the Nero Wolfe series: Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Men respectively.
  2. My spouse's review of Fer-de-Lance has a much better discussion of Archie Goodwin, the quasi-Watson of this series.
  3. Confusingly, Wolfe claims to be American born in this novel, rather than born in Montenegro. It makes little sense in the context of the story, and conflicts with all later books. Stout was pressured to change Wolfe's birthplace by the publisher.
  4. Which leads actually to the most interesting aspect of this novel: Stout himself drew the attention of the FBI, and was placed under investigation by them.


Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill

Ruling Passion
Reginald Hill, 1973, 328p.
I have always had something of a bias against the "this time it hits close to home" trope in fiction. In detective fiction, I enjoy when cases have personal resonances for our detectives, but generally I don't like when they have actual personal connections. This bias puts a damper on my enjoyment of movie thrillers, where invariably the hero's family is at risk or requires avenging.

The most obvious reason for this bias is that it seems pretty improbable and needlessly manipulative. How many times in reality has a detective had to go rogue and solved a case before his colleagues catch up with him because they believe him to be the killer? How many times does the hero cop catch up with the real murderer during the same climactic moment his reticent partner catches up with him? It cannot be a large number.

A less obvious reason is that one of the points of a hero is that they do their jobs skillfully and exhaustively even when it is someone else's family at risk, or someone else's wife's murder that needs solving, or someone else's name that needs clearing. The heroic ideal is the person that goes into the burning building to save the person he doesn't know. Part of the joy of a great detective story is that compulsion to make things right that can never be made right again. The sense that they can fulfill an important role that changes things, but doesn't change anything.

So, I was disappointed when I saw where the first chapter of Ruling Passion was headed: Detective Pascoe and now-girlfriend Ellie Soper arrive late for a weekend reunion with out of town college friends only to discover three of their friends savagely murdered, and the fourth missing. This is the third outing for Detective Superintendent Dalziel and his Sergeant Pascoe1, and Pascoe here is out of his beat, functioning as a shocked and troubled witness rather than an investigator. Dalziel almost doesn't figure in the first third of the novel; he is working away on a string of robberies. The partnership between the two heros is disrupted, and Pascoe's role is disrupted.

Despite my bias, Hill kept me moving, and this outing is in fact the best in the series so far. Pascoe profited from the fish-out-of-water routine, with trenchant observation on his position as a policeman but not an investigator. Pascoe also reflects on grief and shock eloquently (though the voice feels more authorial here), and Hill's writing-in-the-small is tremendous.

As with the last novel, the writing-in-the-large stretches credibility. In An Advancement of Learning, I was more forgiving of this: the character work was stellar, and the characters and the setting largely felt very real. Only the logic of the crime was incredible, and you cut yourself off from too much detective fiction if you cannot forgive a preposterous crime2. Or perhaps the problem is that the interactions and reflections of our three series characters (Dalziel, Pascoe and Ellie) are so interesting that you indulge the actual crime investigations only grudgingly. There is murder, fraud, robbery, a suicide attempt and likely more here, and naturally all of it is somewhat implausibly connected, though mercifully not in an "evil genius" or conspiratorial manner. It is interesting enough, incredible but not fantastical, but you shortly wish he would get back to the scuffling between our heros.

The highlight of the book and the low point of the book both rotate around Ellie Soper, Pascoe's girlfriend. The highlight is the introduction of the relationship between Dalziel and Ellie, a relationship of rambunctious tensions. Hill knows these characters intimately, and the reader feels that he only has to put them in a room or on the phone together to have their interactions appear on the page. Dalziel is coarse, meticulously thoughtless, and chauvinist largely for the charm of provocation. Ellie is a strong, smart "modern" young woman3, self-possessed but only casually combative. Dalziel forces an upper hand in an early encounter with a shock attack, but a rematch over beer is endearing in its dance of mutual restraint.

The low point brings us back around to our "this time it hits close to home" trope. If you venture into this territory to generate drama and develop characters, you have to take all the characters along for the ride. Pascoe's reaction to finding his friends brutally murdered is moderately believable: he is a policeman, and he is inured to some aspects of the shock. Grief falls over him, and the combination of the familiar shock and the unfamiliar shock is handled well in the early story. Ellie has little preparation for such a shock, and is whisked away and sedated. Her shock and trauma has moments of reality, but for the purposes of his story, Hill is forced to let it melt away much too quickly. Tough though she may be, the stroll from the bloody scene of a massacre to a sparring banter session in a pub is surely a long one. In this regard, as with some of the writing around the crime, Hill is writing a detective novel from a generation earlier: the body is found, and shortly tea will be served in the drawing room.

That can all be forgiven of authors 80 years ago and of authors today, but I can't so easily forgive taking one character on one journey of discovery while another quickly slides through a trap door into her own expedient developments at great odds with reality.

I've been promised that Hill's novels keep getting better and better, and so far this is deeply affirmed. Hill is getting brave with his characters, and while I think he overreached a bit here, the bravery keeps things moving forward.


  1. I reviewed An Advancement of Learning previously, the second Dalziel and Pascoe novel.
  2. The preposterous murder is perhaps the great tradition of detective fiction, from the exotic poison snake in the sock drawer to the tampered parachute. Hill's murders themselves are realistic so far in the series: firearms or blunt force trauma, usually unpremeditated. It is the scenarios around the murders that are generally the issue, mostly, in my opinion, the challenge with motives.
  3. Written as it was in 1973, Ellie isn't remotely contemporary, but she is largely written as progressive for the time, thus "modern".


Paying for It by Chester Brown

Paying For It
Chester Brown, 2011, 292p.
Subtitled A Comic-strip Memoir About Being a John, this graphic work explores both Brown's journey into paid intimacy, and both his comfort and discomfort with prostitution.

The story starts with Brown's break-up with girlfriend Sook-Yin Lee (yes, the famed broadcaster) and his characteristic deadpan reaction to it. Brown and Lee continue to live together through Lee's next relationship as it begins and then ends. The nature and ending of these relationships crystallizes his feelings about romantic love.

Brown is sensitive and thoughtful, but also austere and practical. It is hard for the reader not to come to the same conclusion that Brown does: Romantic love isn't really his thing. Brown clearly has close and meaningful platonic and brotherly relationships with his ex-girlfriends and with fellow comic artists Seth and Joe Matt and others. The intensity and risks (and compromise, perhaps) of romantic love seem incompatible with him. But Brown goes a step further than most readers will be willing to go, and he dismisses romantic love universally, not bitterly, but certainly with a coldness of incomprehension. Here Brown comes across as reductive and overly broad. He argues convincingly that he needs a combination of filial love combined with sexual release — then unconvincingly paints this as a rational universal position. He sells me that prostitution makes sense as an avenue for him to explore, and portrays his explorations with both sensitivity and honesty. But then he argues that romantic love is a universal evil, and further argues not only for legalization of prostitution, but rather unconvincingly for normalization.

"Normalization" for Brown means that it would be considered normal for ordinary people to exchange money for sex as a part of dating and even within romantic love. Much like sex before marriage was deeply stigmatized in the past but happened anyway, and is now broadly acceptable in most circles, he argues that transactional intimacy could be made acceptable in a similar way, though it would take both legalization and time.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is easy to understand why Brown argues what he does, and unfortunately it is impossible for the reader not to subject Brown to some sort of analysis. While Brown seems comfortable with his choice in many ways, it is clear the stigma wears at him. Many of the women he transacts with have some level of shame, and Brown is responsive to this shame: he anonymizes the women, stripping their tattoos and obscuring their faces to make sure that no one would guess at their identities from their cartooned forms. He says he talked with many of them about their lives, but limits what he recounts in the book to their experiences with prostitution. Most notably, he has been seeing the same woman for many years, forming a long-term but paid sexual relationship with her; she explicitly requests that he doesn't discuss their relationship any more than he absolutely has to in the book, and he respects that. All of this shame and stigma eats away at the work. Naturally it limits his portrayal of the women in the story, and it makes their interactions even more one-sided then they likely are.

In Brown's expansive footnotes and appendices, he says that he disliked the publishers suggestion for the title "Paying For It" because he felt it suggested a double-meaning: he was paying for sex in the financial sense, but there was some additional cost of a personal, social or perhaps even karmic nature1. He doesn't feel that he has paid that cost, but a full third of this book reads as a defence of his activities. And he is clearly conscious that publishing this sort of work at this time requires an array of either defence or defiance. It seems that there are costs here: either he is open about his lifestyle, and therefore placed on the defence, or he must live this aspect of his life in some level of secrecy. I am conscious that, for some people, locating oneself on the defensive is an opportunity rather than a cost, and sometimes his defence (particularly in the appendices2) feels like a recreation rather than an imposition.

Click to enlarge excerpt
It is no coincidence that I haven't discussed the artwork in this graphic novel yet. Brown's composition and line is disciplined but stiff. He is skillful with dynamic angles and bold use of black, which add some energy to a work that largely lacks movement. Scene after scene takes place in coffee shops and bedrooms, where people simply don't move around much — thank goodness his angles occasionally shift, and he sets some conversations on the street, which allows for visual interest in the background. His figures have a heavy, rigid feel to them. His faces alternate between confused dread and bemused confusion, which in the self-portraits I think is likely pretty accurate.

While the personal aspects of this work are compelling, the prescriptive elements are out of place and unconvincing. Brown has no shortage of bravery when it comes to being open about his personal life; I wish he had been brave enough to let the personal aspect of this story open the reader's mind modestly. Instead he pries at the reader with a crow bar, trying to force open what could only reasonably be cracked ajar. Many readers will also be irked to find that so much of something labelled a "memoir" is given over to uneven libertarian polemic.

Overall, while this is a hard book to love for a variety of reasons, it obviously fascinated me and stuck with me. Though I don't find the artwork exciting or expressive, that can't really be a basis for criticism: With Brown, I don't think that is the point. The restrained artwork dovetails with the narrative to lay him bare for the reader3, and the visual along with narrative honesty here is where things are most successful. When things aren't successful, at least they are thought provoking — sometimes because of what Brown is saying, and sometimes because of what the book seems to say about him.


  1. Brown apparently wanted to title this book I Pay for Sex, a title blunt and telegraphic to the point of comedy.
  2. There are no less than 23 appendices, hand-lettered and only sparsely illustrated. Some of this is the addition of disclaimers and detail to specific sections of the graphic story, other sections are handed over entirely to his arguments for decriminalization and normalization.
  3. Often literally; The New York Time's review aptly describes his self-representation as being like "a praying mantis with testicles".