One of my favourite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread or simply revisited her detective novels, even though I’ve known whodunit in each of them for years. Her best known books feature Lord Peter Wimsey, shell-shock survivor, man about town, bibliophile, and sometime copywriter for an advertising agency.
Now, I encountered Lord Peter at an early age and he is still, for me, the sine qua non for detective fiction. Poirot, Rebus, Grant, Wexford, even Holmes… All have their merits and their notable successes but none to my mind can, quite, match Lord Peter (let us not consider too closely the follow-up books penned by Jill Paton Walsh, other than to say that Wimsey without Sayers is like a fine wine, corked). He might begin as a set of characteristics and catch-phrases, a caricature of the English upper classes, but over the course of his investigations the layers of mannerisms are stripped away to reveal the man. It’s a powerful examination of the aftermath of conflict.
So why am I wittering on about Lord Peter? Well now, this started up as a blog about folk songs. And – lo and behold – there’s an easy link between Lord Peter and folk song: Strong Poison (1930) takes both its name and its epigraph from Child Ballad no. 12, Lord Randal (sung here by Alasdair Roberts).
The ballad comes under the general heading of murder ballads. It’s a broad category; many (most?) of the Child Ballads deal with unnatural death of one sort or another. It’s slightly unusual in that it gives the victim’s account: Lord Randal makes his accusations of who poisoned him and how and when, and instructions as to how to deal with his murderer. It was his sweetheart, of course, with the poison, in the stewed eels. Love seldom goes well in ballads, as I may have mentioned this once or twice before.
Strong Poison opens with Harriet Vane on trial for her life for the murder of her erstwhile sweetheart, Philip Boyes. It is alleged she used poison, although stewed eel does not feature in the dinner the dead man ate on his last evening. And, like Lord Randal, Boyes accused his lover on his deathbed. So far book and ballad run in parallel.
But, whether or not Strong Poison was inspired by the ballad, their courses diverge from that point. It needs to be so – there’s not a lot of plot in Lord Randal; it’s a snapshot of a moment and doesn’t concern itself with what happened before or after. Ballads are like that. Detective fiction, on the other hand, requires rather a lot of plot and a linear progression from problem to solution. Fortunately for Harriet, Lord Peter is around to ask a few questions about that last dinner. His taste in reading is also useful; familiarity with late 19th Century poetry provides the reader with a last, late clue.
It’d be stretching interpretation far beyond breaking point to call Strong Poison a retelling of a ballad. Oh, the supernatural is invoked in Lord Peter’s cause but there’s a rational explanation. You can, if you try hard, find touches here and there evoking balladry; there are, for example, red roses like splashes of blood – a folk song image if ever there was one – in the first line of the book. At best one can conclude that Sayers borrowed an idea or image and ran with it. Literature is like that: the more one reads, the more connections between different forms and stories become apparent.
We never find out if Lord Randal’s sweetheart did, in fact, poison him. It’s not a spoiler to say that Harriet Vane didn’t poison Philip Boyes. Nor to say that, in detective fiction, wronged women can end up living happily ever after. Not quite yet – there’s another couple of books to go before that happens. I don’t think folk songs or ballads feature in them at all.
In an amusing coincidence, as I was writing this post, The Guardian published an article on the likelihood of the murder strategy used in Strong Poison.