It is not enough for an author to create a hero. A hero must by definition act heroically. One can argue that saving the life of a woman you wish to wed is not the act of a hero but the act of a selfish man for he gains her hand to have and to hold if her life is saved. Strong Poison is not the first novel written by Dorothy L. Sayers, nor is it the first time her readers meet protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey. It is the first time we hear Lord Peter proposing marriage to a prisoner of the British Crown, one Harriet Deborah Vane. Prisoner Vane is on trial when the book opens. Accused of poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes, Harriet Vane rejects Wimsey's proposal by informing him that his is the forty-seventh proposal she has received since her incarceration.
The Trial has now become a personal matter for Lord Peter. Although he is a titled gentleman of independent means Lord Peter has a strong sense of social justice; witness a portion of his income going to support a business he affectionately calls 'My Cattery'. Superficially the cattery exists to help women in need of jobs find gainful employment. Solicitor Norman Urquhart, uncle of the late Philip Boyes, was in desperate need of a typist after his left to get married. Lord Peter calls on the attorney at his office as a matter of routine investigation. Mr. Pond, the head clerk, informs Lord Peter that Mr. Urquhart will see him momentarily. This leaves Lord Peter alone with the typist. Miss Murchison, cattery recruit, is described as "strong, ugly, rather masculine…". She nods to Lord Peter who proceeds silently into the private office of attorney Urquhart.
Providing a description of Miss Murchison serves a two-fold purpose. First it arouses the reader’s sympathy. Secondly it insures that the love interest between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane proceeds unhampered by third party interruptions. To establish Miss Vane's innocence Lord Peter must solve the mystery surrounding the death of Philip Boyes. Interestingly most of the actual detective work performed in Strong Poison is conducted by lesser female characters. Cutting two-thirds of the book would leave you with a better mystery novel but you would lose all the historical references that in my opinion make Strong Poison a book worth keeping on your shelves. Concern for those on the fringe of society is a strong theme in all the Dorothy L. Sayers books.
Sayers uses the character of Miss Murchison to advance the plot of Strong Poison. Developments in the case give Lord Peter a chance to speak with his beloved Miss Vane. Joan Murchison's background in stockbroking allows her to pick up clues from a mysterious phone call her employer receives. Lord Peter asks Miss Murchison to pick locks in order to help catch a crook. Miss Murchison becomes an invaluable tool as his investigation proceeds. One of the elements that makes Sayers' books a delightful read is the way she interlaces the mundane with the exciting. Being a typist is boring but having the opportunity to investigate a scam makes it interesting. If you are curious about what people were wearing, eating and talking about in England during the late 1920's Dorothy L. Sayers offers enchanting snippets of what life was like back then.
At the end of the book the fate of Harriet Vane is more certain than the fate of Miss Murchison who through no fault of her own is out of job. Joan Murchison is no younger and no more attractive than she was at the beginning of the book. Careful readers following the life and times of Lord Peter Wimsey will find another mention of Miss Murchison tucked away in another Dorothy L. Sayers book; Murder Must Advertise. A hopeless romantic would marry Miss Murchison off, a devious author would take the knowledge Joan Murchison gained from her adventures in Strong Poison and make her a murderess or educated accomplice. Which path Sayers chooses for this minor character remains unknown as the book ends which is why I call Miss Murchison, a woman of little mystery.