One of my work colleagues a) only reads fiction by women and b) preferably only from at least forty years ago. Working with Gen is obviously having an effect, as my first book selection of the year (despite an avalanche of book gifts over Xmas) was this little nugget by Dorothy L. Sayers. I last read a book by Sayers about 20 years ago as part of a degree, the excellent Murder Must Advertise, and it was great fun to dive back into her world.
This 1930 novel opens with a wonderful set-piece, as the judge of a trial gives his (biased, chauvinist, partial, opinionated) direction to the jury before they go out to consider a verdict. The trial is of the mystery writer Harriet Vane who has been accused of murdering her lover by arsenic poisoning – inevitably, all the circumstantial evidence seems to point to her, but she has one large stroke of luck on her side: Lord Peter Wimsey has taken a rather enormous shine to her, so sets out to prove her innocence.
It’s an excellent whodunnit, and there are plenty of twists and turns and a good deal of suspense along the way. What shines out particularly though, given when it was written, is that this feels like a pretty feminist, progressive novel – Harriet Vane is self-possessed and secure in her own identity (the very opposite of a damsel in distress); Wimsey relies on his friend Miss Climpson and a planted ‘spy’ Miss Murchison to do all the detective work, and it is their creativity and derring-do that powers the plot along, and creates much of the drama. The men, including even Wimsey but also his policeman colleague Parker, are generally fairly weak-willed and useless by comparison. The victim, Philip Boyes, is another who can be categorised in that camp – apparently Sayers based his character on a real-life author and proponent of ‘free love’, John Cournos, with whom she had a relationship in the late 20s. It’s fair to say he doesn’t come out of it well.
It’s hugely entertaining stuff; and like all the best crime and police fiction, it gives you great insight into the society of the time, and the way in which traditions were being challenged, and accepted practices were changing. Recommended!