In two weeks, I'll be attending Crimebake, a mystery writers' conference held in Dedham, MA. An assignment for one of my workshops (Reading Like a Writer), I was tasked with reading Dorothy Sayers's mystery called Strong Poison. Written in 1930, it is her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey novel. Because I write mysteries set during WWII, I have recently started reading books written during that time to get a flavor of the era. It has been a fascinating project.
The plot of Strong Poison centers around the case of crime fiction writer, Harriet Vane, who is accused of killing her former lover (also a writer). Lord Wimsey takes one look at the defendant and decides she couldn't possibly be a murderer. He pulls some strings within the police force, visits Harriet in jail, proposes marriage to her, then announces he will prove her innocence. An unusual chain of events, to be sure.
The book breaks several current writing “rules,” the most obvious being the amount of backstory packed into the first several chapters. Rather than devote pages to the actual court case, Sayers uses the judge to summarize the case from the bench. She then periodically inserts “asides” and editorial comments shared between Wimsey and his friend in the courtroom. Thanks to his connections, money and ingenuity Wimsey solves the case. You'll have to read Strong Poison yourself to find out if Harriet is the murderer.
Honestly, I had trouble “getting into” the book, but once I did, I was off and running behind Wimsey to try to solve the case. I found myself flipping back to the judge's monologue looking for clues (handy to have some of them all in one place!). I correctly identified the killer, but for the wrong motive. (Oops!)
Nearly sixty years after her death, Sayers's is still a popular author. Her books continue to be regularly checked out at my local library, and I recently ran into a friend in a restaurant who was reading a dog-eared copy of another of Sayers's books.
What about you? Do you read authors from the early 20th century? How do you think their books compare to today's fiction?