“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely.
Strong Poison was the first Peter Wimsey novel I ever read. It was the right one for me to start with, as it is the first one that features Harriet Vane, who is superb from the first moment we meet her; I went eagerly on to read (and have since reread many, many times) the rest of the Peter-and-Harriet sequence: Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. I used to reread Strong Poison pretty regularly too, as the tattered condition of my copy testifies, but I haven’t gone back to it in ages–decades, perhaps. Rereading it this time, I felt the usual nostalgic pleasure in revisiting something once loved and still familiar in almost every word, but I was also surprised that it had inspired me to read on in the series.
It’s not just that now I have much less patience for elaborate but very unlikely crimes and protracted displays of ingenuity in their investigation: it’s that I can’t imagine that I ever liked this Peter Wimsey at all. How was I not then, as I am now, both horrified and creeped out by his opportunistic, entitled, manipulative “courtship” of Harriet? “When all this is over,” he says to a woman he is meeting for the first time and who is currently on trial for murder and thus facing the death penalty, “I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.” It’s inexcusable, and it’s exactly right both that Harriet refuses him every time he returns to visit her in prison, update her on her case, and press her once more to consent to his proposal, and that at the end of the novel he slinks away without facing her.
Of course, Sayers herself realized the same thing: as she explained, what began as a simple enough plan to marry Peter off went completely off the rails when her two-dimensional chatterer came face to face with a woman of substance and complexity. Before she could let Harriet say yes, she had to reinvent Peter as a man of a very different kind while also giving them both, but especially Harriet, time and space to recover from his first ridiculous, blundering advances. Only then could they develop (and could we believe in) a relationship based on genuine respect, intellectual camaraderie, and love. The process begins in Have His Carcase, reaches its triumphant conclusion in Gaudy Night, and then carries on with mixed success in Busman’s Honeymoon.
I think because I rarely read the pre-Harriet Wimseys (I’m not even sure I’ve ever read them all) and hadn’t read Strong Poison in so long, I’d forgotten just what a long journey Peter makes across the sequence. It’s not that there’s nothing at all interesting or redeemable about him in Strong Poison, but he is conspicuously more shallow than in Gaudy Night, in which he can deliberately put on or take off the aristocratic buffoon persona that nearly defines him here. What really bothered me this time, though, was his abuse of Harriet’s confinement and vulnerability to press his attentions on her. “Do please stop asking me,” she says near the end of the novel:
“I don’t know. I can’t think. I can’t see beyond the–beyond the–beyond the next few weeks. I only want to get out of this and be left alone.”
That seems more than fair! He’s harassing her. She can’t get away, what with being in prison and all, and for all she really knows, if she keeps rejecting him he’ll stop detecting for her. It’s true he’s preeningly self-conscious about the awkwardness of the situation, but by far the most insightful thing he says about it is the last line of the book: “I intend to marry the prisoner,” he tells his family … “if she’ll have me.” It is, and should be, up to her–and he’s right to be worried.
If Peter is the worst thing about Strong Poison (and I say this as someone who considers the Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night very nearly the perfect man), Miss Climpson and her “Cattery” are the best. Smart, resourceful, intrepid spinsters working covertly in the service of justice: wouldn’t that make a splendid TV series? The first episode could be Strong Poison, just so we have the fun of following Miss Murchison’s adventures in the lawyer’s office and then Miss Climpson’s star turn as a medium. After that, though, Peter could be a minor character, which frankly, if we’re in the world of Strong Poison, is as much as he deserves.