by Sandra Parshall
Agatha Christie gave us the world’s most famous female sleuth, the village spinster Miss Marple, who knitted and gardened and solved crimes by observation and carefully placed questions. But Dorothy L. Sayers gave us Harriet Vane, the sharp-tongued, fiercely intelligent, and stubbornly independent mystery author who kept Lord Peter Wimsey dangling through several books before she accepted his proposal.
Harriet, who first appeared in Strong Poison (1930), lived openly with her lover – and was accused of killing him. The daughter of a country doctor, orphaned at an early age, she graduated with honors from Oxford University and went on to support herself by writing. In short, Harriet was not a typical woman of her time, and that has made her an enduring favorite with readers. You could plunk her down in a 21st century mystery and she wouldn’t be out of place.
Harriet appeared in only four Lord Peter Wimsey novels –Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon – and in a short story, Talboys, included in a collection. Jill Paton Walsh completed Sayers’s unfinished novel, Thrones, Dominations, and wrote two others, but to purists the only Harriet Vane books that count are those Sayers published.
This month the newly launched HarperCollins imprint, Bourbon Street Books, has reissued the four Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in which Harriet appears in beautiful new trade paperback editions. I received a set from the publisher to give away to a lucky reader.
Leave a comment about Harriet to enter a drawing for all four books. What does Harriet Vane mean to you? Why do you love and admire her? Why has she remained a popular character for more than 80 years? If you haven’t read the books, what intrigues you about Harriet and makes you want to learn more?
By the way, in May 2011, Victoria Janssen wrote a wonderful article about Harriet and Lord Peter’s relationship for the Criminal Element blog. If you missed it, and you’re a Harriet fan, I suggest you read it promptly here.