Sunday, January 29, 2012

It Never ends

My mom is having some major health much so that I'm not going to be able to post here for another couple of days while we get it straightened out.

Note to all my readers: If you have high blood pressure, make damn sure you take your medication or 20 years later you'll have congestive heart failure and wham, bam goes your quality of life.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Clouds of Witness cont

“Wait a minute,” said Parker. “How's this? No. 10 has an appointment with Cathcart—to blackmail him, let's say. He somehow gets word of his intention to him between 9.45 and 10.15. That would account for the alteration in Cathcart's manner, and allow both Mr. Arbuthnot and the Duke to be telling the truth. Cathcart rushes violently out after his row with your brother. He comes down here to keep his appointment. He paces up and down waiting for No. 10. No. 10 arrives and parleys with Cathcart. Cathcart offers him money. No. 10 stands out for more. Cathcart says he really hasn't got it. No. 10 says in that case he blows the gaff.
Blow the gaff starts to appear early in the nineteenth century as criminal slang. It isn’t easy to find an origin — a lot of dictionaries don’t even try — because the matter is clouded by the fog of ages and the poor state of recording of early slang. There are also all sorts of meanings for gaff recorded down the centuries, which has added to our difficulties.

The standard English sense is of a hooked stick or barbed spear used for landing fish, at one time transferred to a horse-rider’s or fighting cock’s spur. This is from the Provençal word gaf for a boat-hook. In French this took on the figurative sense of a blunder, perhaps because the emotional effect is like being gaffed, and it’s the origin of the standard English gaffe for an embarrassing remark or blunder. In the middle of the nineteenth century it was also the source of another sense:
The gaff is a ring worn on the fore-finger of the dealer. It has a sharp point on the inner side, and the gambler, when dealing from a two-card box, can deal out the card he chooses.

Vocabulum: or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, by George Washington Matsell, 1859. Matsell was Chief of Police in New York City and a part-owner of the National Police Gazette. This extraordinary guide to criminal slang was compiled for his colleagues.
Together with the English dialect gaff for loud and coarse talk, or the same Scots word gaff which meant to talk loudly and merrily, this gave rise at the beginning of the twentieth century to an American slang sense that referred to severe criticism, treatment, or hardship (as in stand the gaff or give the gaff).

Then there’s the British slang meaning of gaff for the place where one lives (“come round my gaff for a coffee”), which is almost certainly derived from the use of gaff in the eighteenth-century to mean a fair, and later a cheap music-hall or theatre (as in the infamous penny gaff) and which probably comes from the Romany gav for a town, especially a market town.

But none of these is the immediate source for blow the gaff. We have to go back to the eighteenth century, when there was another version of the expression, to blow the gab, criminal slang meaning to reveal a secret or to betray a confederate; gab means conversation or speech (as in gift of the gab) and blow itself had earlier had the slang sense of informing on confederates:

As for that, says Will, I cou’d Sell it well enough, if I had it, but I must not be seen any where among my old Acquaintance; for I am blown, and they will all betray me.
History of Colonel Jack, by Daniel Defoe, 1723.

This is a famous early appearance of the full expression:
I, Crank Cuffin, swear to be
True to this fraternity;
That I will in all obey
Rule and order of the lay.
Never blow the gab or squeak;
Never snitch to bum or beak.
The Oath of the Canting Crew, taken from The Life of Bampfylde Moore Carew, by Robert Goadby, 1749. Crank Cuffin was a generic term for a rogue; squeak and snitch also refer to becoming an informer; a bum was a bailiff, a lowly law-enforcement officer (his name was an abbreviation of bum-bailiff, one who was close behind you in pursuit); and a beak was a magistrate.

We may guess that blow the gab changed into blow the gaff under the influence of one of the senses of gaff. We don't know for sure when this happened but the earliest known example of the expression is this:
A person having any secret in his possession, or a knowledge of anything injurious to another, when at least induced from revenge, or other motive, to tell it openly to the world and expose him publicly, is then said to have blown the gaff upon him.
A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, by James Hardy Vaux, 1812. Vaux was then a transported criminal in New South Wales, Australia. Flash is an old term referring to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld.

This is an early example of the expression from outside the criminal world:
One of the French officers, after he was taken prisoner, axed me how we had managed to get the gun up there but I wasn’t going to blow the gaff, so I told him as a great secret, that we got it up with a kite; upon which he opened all his eyes, and crying “Sacre bleu!” walked away, believing all I said was true.
Peter Simple, by Frederick Marryat, 1833. Axed here is a dialectal form of asked.
Cathcart retorts, 'In that case you can go to the devil. I'm going there myself.'

Cathcart, who has previously got hold of the revolver, shoots himself. No. 10 is seized with remorse. He sees that Cathcart isn't quite dead. He picks him up and part drags, part carries him to the house. He is smaller than Cathcart and not very strong, and finds it a hard job. They have just got to the conservatory door when Cathcart has a final hæmorrhage and gives up the ghost.
There are many uses of this phrase in the Bible, including this, from Miles Coverdale's Version, 1535, Acts 12:23:

Immediatly the angell of the LORDE smote him, because he gaue not God the honoure: And he was eaten vp of wormes, and gaue vp the goost.

The metaphorical use of the phrase, i.e. in relation to something not living and not able to become a ghost, is 19th century; for example, James Kirke Paulding's, Westward Ho!, 1832, includes:

"At length it gave up the ghost, and, like an over-cultivated intellect, became incurably barren."

No. 10 suddenly becomes aware that his position in somebody else's grounds, alone with a corpse at 3 a.m., wants some explaining. He drops Cathcart—and bolts. Enter the Duke of Denver and falls over the body. Tableau.”
Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment. Before the age of color reproduction of images the tableau vivant (often abbreviated simply to tableau) was sometimes used to recreate paintings "on stage", based on an etching or sketch of the painting. This could be done as an amateur venture in a drawing room, or as a more professionally produced series of tableaux presented on a theatre stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings of a "live" theatre performance. They thus 'educated' their audience to understand the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows, and perhaps also sequential narrative comic strips (which first appeared in modern form in the late 1890s).

These tableaux vivant were often performed as the basis for school nativity plays in England during the Victorian period. Today, the custom is now practiced only at Loughborough High School (the oldest all-girl school in England). Ten tableaux are performed each year at the school carol service, including the depiction of an all-grey engraving (in which the subjects are painted completely grey).

The Pageant of the Masters is a tableau vivant-style production held in Laguna Beach, California every summer since 1933 (except during World War II). The Pageant recreates famous works of art on the stage. It has a different theme each year, but always features a recreation of "The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The Pageant of our Lord is a tableau vivant-style production held in Rolling Hills Estates, California every spring since 1985. This production focuses on the life of Jesus Christ as told through religious works of art such as the "Pieta" of Michelangelo, "The Well of Moses" by Claus Sluter, and "Coming Home" by De L'Esprie.

Theatrical censorship in Britain and the U.S. forbade actresses to move when nude or semi-nude on stage, so tableaux vivant had a place in risqué entertainment for many years

In the nineteenth century they took such titles as "Nymphs Bathing" and "Diana the Huntress" and were to be found at such places as the "Hall of Rome" in Great Windmill Street, London. Other venues were the "Coal Hole" in the Strand and the "Cyder Cellar" in Maiden Lane.

After 1900, nude and semi-nude tableaux vivant also became a frequent feature of variety shows in the U.S.: first on Broadway in New York, then elsewhere in the country. The Ziegfeld Follies featured tableaux vivant from 1917.

The Windmill Theatre in London (1932–1964) featured nude tableaux vivant on stage; it was the first, and for many years the only venue for them in 20th century London.

Tableaux vivant were often included in fairground sideshows (as see in the film A Taste of Honey). Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s.

In the early 1900s, German dancer Olga Desmond appeared in Schönheitsabende (“Evenings of Beauty”) in which she posed nude in "living pictures", imitating classical works of art.

“That's good,” said Lord Peter; “that's very good. But when do you suppose it happened? Gerald found the body at 3 a.m.; the doctor was here at 4.30, and said Cathcart had been dead several hours. Very well. Now, how about that shot my sister heard at three o'clock?”

“Look here, old man,” said Parker, “I don't want to appear rude to your sister. May I put it like this? I suggest that that shot at 3 a.m. was poachers.”

“Poachers by all means,” said Lord Peter. “Well, really, Parker, I think that hangs together. Let's adopt that explanation provisionally. The first thing to do is now to find No. 10, since he can bear witness that Cathcart committed suicide; and that, as far as my brother is concerned, is the only thing that matters a rap. But for the satisfaction of my own curiosity I'd like to know: What was No. 10 blackmailing Cathcart about? Who hid a suit-case in the conservatory? And what was Gerald doing in the garden at 3 a.m.?”

“Well,” said Parker, “suppose we begin by tracing where No. 10 came from.”

“Hi, hi!” cried Wimsey, as they returned to the trail. “Here's something—here's real treasure-trove, Parker!”
A treasure trove may broadly be defined as an amount of money or coin, gold, silver, plate, or bullion found hidden underground or in places such as cellars or attics, where the treasure seems old enough for it to be presumed that the true owner is dead and the heirs undiscoverable. However, both the legal definition of what constitutes a treasure trove and its treatment under law varies considerably from country to country, and from era to era.

The term is also often used metaphorically. Collections of articles published as a book are often titled Treasure Trove, as in A Treasure Trove of Science. This was especially fashionable for titles of children's books in the early- and mid-20th century.

From amid the mud and the fallen leaves he retrieved a tiny, glittering object—a flash of white and green between his finger-tips.

It was a little charm such as women hang upon a bracelet—a diminutive diamond cat with eyes of bright emerald.


“Other things are all very well in their way, but give me Blood.... We say, 'There it is! that's Blood!' It is an actual matter of fact. We point it out. It admits of no doubt.... We must have Blood, you know.”
David Copperfield (Abook by CharlesDickens)

“Hitherto,” said Lord Peter, as they picked their painful way through the little wood on the trail of Gent's No. 10's, “I have always maintained that those obliging criminals who strew their tracks with little articles of personal adornment—here he is, on a squashed fungus—were an invention of detective fiction for the benefit of the author. I see that I have still something to learn about my job.”

“Well, you haven't been at it very long, have you?” said Parker. “Besides, we don't know that the diamond cat is the criminal's. It may belong to a member of your own family, and have been lying here for days. It may belong to Mr. What's-his-name in the States, or to the last tenant but one, and have been lying here for years. This broken branch may be our friend—I think it is.”

“I'll ask the family,” said Lord Peter, “and we could find out in the village if anyone's ever inquired for a lost cat. They're pukka stones.
Pukka (pronounced puck-a) is a word of Hindi and Urdu origin, literally meaning 'cooked, ripe' and figuratively 'fully formed', 'solid', 'permanent', 'for real', 'sure'. In UK slang it means "genuine".

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Clouds of Witness ch 3 cont

Lord Peter gazed down sadly. Muffled in an overcoat and a thick grey scarf, he looked, with his long, narrow face, like a melancholy adjutant stork.
Leptoptilos is a genus of very large tropical storks. Two species are resident breeders in southern Asia, and the Marabou Stork is found in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are huge birds, typically 110–150 cm tall with a 210–250 cm wingspan. The three species each have a black upper body and wings, and white belly and undertail. The head and neck are bare like those of a vulture. The huge bill is long and thick. Juveniles are a duller, browner version of the adult.

Leptoptilos storks are gregarious colonial breeders in wetlands, building large stick nests in trees. They feed on frogs, insects, young birds, lizards and rodents. They are frequent scavengers, and the naked head and neck are adaptations to this, as are those of the vultures with which they often feed. A feathered head would become rapidly clotted with blood and other substances when a scavenging bird's head was inside a large corpse, and the bare head is easier to keep clean.

Most storks fly with neck outstretched, but the three Leptoptilos storks retract their necks in flight like a heron.

The writhing body of the fallen man had scraped up the dead leaves and left a depression in the sodden ground. At one place the darker earth showed where a great pool of blood had soaked into it, and the yellow leaves of a Spanish poplar were rusted with no autumnal stain.

Populus alba, commonly called abele, silver poplar, silverleaf poplar, or white poplar, is a species of poplar, most closely related to the aspens (Populus sect. Populus). It is native from Spain and Morocco through central Europe (north to Germany and Poland) to central Asia. It grows in moist sites, often by watersides, in regions with hot summers and cold to mild winters.

It is a medium-sized deciduous tree, growing to heights of up to 16-27 m (rarely more), with a trunk up to 2 m diameter and a broad rounded crown. The bark is smooth and greenish-white to greyish-white with characteristic diamond-shaped dark marks on young trees, becoming blackish and fissured at the base of old trees. The young shoots are covered with whitish-grey down, including the small buds. The leaves are 4-15 cm long, five-lobed, with a thick covering of white scurfy down on both sides but thicker underneath; this layer wears off the upper side but not the lower, which stays white until autumn leaf fall. Larger, deeply lobed leaves are produced on fast-growing young trees, and smaller, less deeply lobed leaves on older, slow-growing trees. The flowers are catkins up to 8 cm long, produced in early spring; they are dioecious, with male and female catkins on separate trees; the male catkins are grey with conspicuous dark red stamens, the female catkins are greyish-green. The female catkins lengthen to 8–10 cm after pollination, with several green seed capsules, maturing in late spring to early summer. It also propagates by means of root suckers growing from the lateral roots, often as far as 20-30 m from the trunk, to form extensive clonal colonies.

White Poplar hybridises with the closely related Common Aspen Populus tremula; the resulting hybrid, known as Grey Poplar (Populus × canescens), is intermediate between its parents, with a thin grey downy coating on the leaves, which are also much less deeply lobed than White Poplar leaves. It is a very vigorous tree with marked hybrid vigour, reaching 40 m tall and over 1.5 m trunk diameter (much larger than either of its parents). Most Grey Poplars in cultivation are male, but female trees occur naturally and some of these are also propagated
“That's where they found the handkerchief and revolver,” said Parker. “I looked for finger-marks, but the rain and mud had messed everything up.”

Wimsey took out his lens, lay down, and conducted a personal tour of the whole space slowly on his stomach, Parker moving mutely after him.

“He paced up and down for some time,” said Lord Peter. “He wasn't smoking. He was turning something over in his mind, or waiting for somebody. What's this? Aha! Here's our No. 10 foot again, coming in through the trees on the farther side. No signs of a struggle. That's odd! Cathcart was shot close up, wasn't he?”

“Yes; it singed his shirt-front.”

“Quite so. Why did he stand still to be shot at?”

“I imagine,” said Parker, “that if he had an appointment with No. 10 Boots it was somebody he knew, who could get close to him without arousing suspicion.”

“Then the interview was a friendly one—on Cathcart's side, anyhow. But the revolver's a difficulty. How did No. 10 get hold of Gerald's revolver?”

“The conservatory door was open,” said Parker dubiously.

“Nobody knew about that except Gerald and Fleming,” retorted Lord Peter. “Besides, do you mean to tell me that No. 10 walked in here, went to the study, fetched the revolver, walked back here, and shot Cathcart? It seems a clumsy method. If he wanted to do any shooting, why didn't he come armed in the first place?”

“It seems more probable that Cathcart brought the revolver,” said Parker.

“Then why no signs of a struggle?”

“Perhaps Cathcart shot himself,” said Parker.

“Then why should No. 10 drag him into a conspicuous position and then run away?”

Monday, January 9, 2012

Clouds of Witness cont

Sorry for the long delay in posting. Will now be back to every other day.
“No such luck,” said Parker. “It's more a case of:
“They followed from the earthy bank
Those footsteps one by one,
Into the middle of the plank;
And farther there were none!”
A poem by William Wordsworth. Lucy Gray; Or, Solitude. 1799

“Great poet, Wordsworth,” said Lord Peter; “how often I've had that feeling. Now let's see. These footmarks—a man's No. 10 with worn-down heels and a patch on the left inner side—advance from the hard bit of the path which shows no footmarks; they come to the body—here, where that pool of blood is. I say, that's rather odd, don't you think? No? Perhaps not. There are no footmarks under the body? Can't say, it's such a mess. Well, the Unknown gets so far—here's a footmark deeply pressed in. Was he just going to throw Cathcart into the well? He hears a sound; he starts; he turns; he runs on tiptoe—into the shrubbery, by Jove!”
In ancient Roman religion and myth, Jupiter (Latin Iuppiter) or Jove is the king of the gods, and the god of the sky and thunder. He is the equivalent of Zeus in the Greek pantheon.

Jupiter may have begun as a sky-god, concerned mainly with wine festivals and associated with the sacred oak on the Capitol. If so, he developed a twofold character. He received the spolia opima and became a god of war; as Stator he made the armies stand firm and as Victor he gave them victory. As the sky-god, he was the first resort as a divine witness to oaths.

Jupiter's primary sacred animal is the eagle, which held precedence over other birds in the taking of auspices.

Jupiter was the central deity of the early Capitoline Triad of Roman state religion, comprising Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, who each possessed some measure of the divine characteristics essential to Rome's agricultural economy, social organisation and success in war. He retained this position as senior deity among the later Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

In the Greek-influenced tradition, Jupiter was the brother of Neptune and Pluto. Each of them presided over one of the three realms of the universe: sky, land, and underworld. Jupiter remained Rome's chief official deity throughout the Republican and Imperial eras, until displaced by the religious hegemony of Christianity.

“Yes,” said Parker, “and the tracks come out on one of the grass paths in the wood, and there's an end of them.”

“H'm! Well, we'll follow them later. Now where did they come from?”

Together the two friends followed the path away from the house. The gravel, except for the little patch before the conservatory, was old and hard, and afforded but little trace, particularly as the last few days had been rainy. Parker, however, was able to assure Wimsey that there had been definite traces of dragging and bloodstains.

“What sort of bloodstains? Smears?”

“Yes, smears mostly. There were pebbles displaced, too, all the way—and now here is something odd.”

It was the clear impression of the palm of a man's hand heavily pressed into the earth of a herbaceous border, the fingers pointing towards the house. On the path the gravel had been scraped up in two long furrows. There was blood on the grass border between the path and the bed, and the edge of the grass was broken and trampled.
A herbaceous border is a collection of perennial herbaceous plants (plants that live for more than two years and are soft-stemmed and non-woody) arranged closely together, usually to create a dramatic effect through colour, shape or large scale. The term herbaceous border is mostly in use in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. In North America, the term perennial border is normally used.

“I don't like that,” said Lord Peter.

“Ugly, isn't it?” agreed Parker.

“Poor devil!” said Peter. “He made a determined effort to hang on here. That explains the blood by the conservatory door. But what kind of a devil drags a corpse that isn't quite dead?”

A few yards farther the path ran into the main drive. This was bordered with trees, widening into a thicket. At the point of intersection of the two paths were some further indistinct marks, and in another twenty yards or so they turned aside into the thicket. A large tree had fallen at some time and made a little clearing, in the midst of which a tarpaulin had been carefully spread out and pegged down. The air was heavy with the smell of fungus and fallen leaves.

“Scene of the tragedy,” said Parker briefly, rolling back the tarpaulin.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sayers in the News: The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for A Deadly Dinner

From PLoS blog: Speakeasy Science: The Science of Mysteries: Instructions for A Deadly Dinner
One day on Twitter, some science bloggers who began life on the dark side, in the humanities, happily discovered a shared taste for classic mystery writers. We thought we might write a series of posts, all on the same day, about the science in mystery books and so …

You’ll find me here talking about toxicology, one of the great writers from the golden age of detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers, and her 1930 book Strong Poison. But you’ll also find Jennifer Ouellette exploring physics in Sayer’s masterpiece, The Nine Tailors, at Cocktail Party Physics and also in Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon for Discovery News. Not to mention Ann Finkbeiner at The Last Word on Nothing looking at geology, rivers and the great Josephine Tey’s book, To Love and Be Wise. It’s made for a great week of reading very smart writers of the past and consulting with very smart writers today.


When people ask why I would choose to write a book about poisons (The Poisoner’s Handbook) I usually start with my brief stint as a chemistry major, my continuing affection for using poisons as a way to think about our chemical planet. But I always end up admitting that – and, yes, this will make me sound a little twisted - I’ve been thinking about poison murders since I was in high school.

That was when I started reading my way through my mother’s collection of early 20th century murder mysteries – Sayers, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Mignon Eberhart, Patricia Wentworth – women who spun the most intricate plots around the most evil chemistry. Of these, only Christie is really famous today, more for her brilliant plotting and quirky detectives like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple than for her savvy toxicology. But she knew her chemistry; she’d worked as a nurse and in a hospital pharmacy.

In her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), the killers deftly use bromine to precipitate strychnine into the bottom of victim’s tonic bottle, carefully timing that last lethal dose. It was this that caught my attention and imagination – the elegant use of a lethal substances, the way the peculiarities of a poison could literally carry a plot. A much later Christie novel, The Pale Horse (1961), uses the unnerving symptoms of poisoning by thallium to produce both a puzzle and a ominous sense of disaster.

But none of these writers, I think, did more justice to that most famous of homicidal poisons, arsenic, than did Sayers in Strong Poison. The title comes from the lyrics of a 17th century ballad, The Poisoned Man: “O that was strong poison, my handsome young man/O yes, I am poisoned mother; make my bed soon/For I’m sick to the heart, and I fain wad lie down.”

But the chemistry is absolutely up-to-date for 1930, the year the book was published. In fact, Sayers for all her literary background (she was an Oxford University educated scholar of classical languages and considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work) performs as an outstandingly good science writer in the course of the story. Consider this description:

And presently, definitely, magically, a thin silver stain began to form in the tube where the flame impinged on it. Second by second it spread and darkened to a deep brownish-black ring with a shining metallic centre.

“Holy blank,” I said to myself. “She’s talking about the Marsh test.” I was at the moment rereading Strong Poison, and I was exactly 29 pages from the end but I put the book down so that I could run downstairs and inform my husband that Sayers really knew her arsenic.

I don’t know why I bother to tell him these things. He always looks so hunted.

But about the Marsh test. It was developed by a British chemist, James Marsh, during the 1830s. At the time, there was no good test for detecting arsenic (or really any poison) in a corpse. Marsh himself had been involved in the prosecution of one accused murderer who was found not guilty partly because the science was so inconclusive. After the verdict, the man admitted that he had indeed killed his grandfather with arsenic. Infuriated, Marsh dedicated his spare hours to looking for a better test. The technique he developed would eventually revolutionize toxicology – it worked, it led to convictions, and it was credited for a reduction in 19th century arsenic murders, as would-be poisoners for first time worried about scientific evidence.

The Marsh test used a mixture of zinc, acid, and heat applied to suspect tissue to generate a fine vapor. If the tissue contained arsenic, the vapor would include arsine gas which, when cooled, formed a dark silvery “arsenic mirror”. In fact, that shining metallic formation so beautifully described by Sayers above.

That revealing Marsh test, as you might imagine, appears fairly late in the story. Sayers begins the book at the murder trial of a mystery writer, Harriet Vane, accused of killing her former lover with arsenic. Vane had purchased arsenic shortly before the death although she claimed to have done so has part of research for a novel. The detective who starred in most of Sayer’s mysteries, Lord Peter Wimsey, attends the trial and becomes convinced of Vane’s innocence. He’s also smitten by Vane’s intelligence and fierce independence – setting the stage for a courtship than runs through several following novels.

But the judge in the trial isn’t smitten at all. As he instructs the jury, he details Vane’s promiscuous behavior with the dead man (she lived with him) and dwells on her unnerving knowledge of arsenic, noting that Vane “evidently gave considerable thought to the subject, for there were a number of books on her shelves dealing with forensic medicine and toxicology, and also the reports of several famous poison trials..”

I had a moment in which I realized – is this why my husband occasionally looks so hunted? – that this fictional character might be describing my literal library. The rows of books about forensic medicine and toxicology books, the specific case studies of murderous events. Like Sayers’ Harriet Vane, I even possess a book on “the Armstrong case.”

But in our mutual defense, this was a famous murder; Herbert Rowse Armstrong, executed in 1922, poisoned his wife with so much arsenic that even after death it was found oozing out of her hair. Armstrong is still famed as the only solicitor in the history of the United Kingdom to have been hanged for murder.

In Sayer’s story, Vane is saved by a hung jury (the holdout is a friend of Wimsey’s) and before the new trial is set, the detective is able to discover the real killer. There’s never a doubt that Vane’s lover, Philip Boyes, was killed by arsenic. His death is a catalog of classic arsenic symptoms – from severe nausea and vomiting, to tremors and chilling of his hands and feet. Arsenic’s effects are well known, thanks to its long homicidal – and industrial - history and the fact that it’s a naturally occurring element, known to contaminate water supplies around the planet.

So the problem in solving Boyes’ murder is mostly figuring out how he ingested that last lethal dose of the poison. The evening that the victim died, he’d shared a dinner with his cousin in which they both ate from the same dishes. The cousin, as the judge noted, remained perfectly healthy. Boyes had then gone to visit Vane who might, or might not, have served him a poisoned cup of coffee. But if not at her hands, then whose?

“You’ve got to have some plausible pretext for giving a bloke arsenic,” complains Wimsey to an associate. “You can’t just catching him standing on a doorstep and say ‘Here, have a drink of this,’ can you?”.

Eventually, Wimsey discovers that someone besides Vane (and no, I won’t tell you who) has a secret supply of packets of a mysterious white powder. At this point it’s clear that Sayers has also been reading up on Herbert Rowse Armstrong, who put arsenic weedkiller into paper packets and kept them in his pockets.

Armstrong claimed that he needed the poison on him in case he stumbled upon an unexpected weed.He had, in fact, been tipping it into his wife’s tea. One of the reasons that poisoners liked arsenic so much – before scientists like Marsh made it so detectable – is that it tends to be bland in taste, difficult for a victim to detect in food or drink. In some of my favorite 19th century tests by forensic chemists, they mixed it into everything from pudding to wine to prove that point. (In case you wondered, that fact also comes from my personal library.)

Anyway, it’s that neatly discovered white powder that Wimsey puts so successfully through the Marsh test. Once he’s found the poison, he is able to reconstruct the crime and to trick the murderer into a confession. I won’t give it all away here but it involves the idea of building up an arsenic immunity before serving a particularly deadly dinner.

When I arrived at the solution to the mystery, I thought to myself, “Holy blank, she’s talking about the arsenic eaters of Styria.” These were 19th century Austrian peasants who supposedly became resistant to arsenic toxicity by eating it in small regular doses. One report had them smearing a poisonous paste on their morning toast. At Sayer’s time, arsenic-eating was prominently featured in toxicology books and her description is, again, textbook perfect.

Or at least 1930s textbook perfect. It was a hot theory in her time but today it appears less convincing, based on mythology as much as science. Modern science tells us that chronic exposure to arsenic is likely to bring on a host of health problems, ranging from skin discoloration to malignancy, that Sayer’s villain would not have enjoyed unblemished good health.

But her ending holds up perfectly in terms of the science of 80 years ago. And the other details – the shimmering results of a Marsh test, for instance? They’re as good today as they were when Sayers plotted out her story of arsenic and murder by a very strong poison.

Sayers in the News: A tasty New Year's Eve treat

From the Muscogee Phoenix: A tasty New Year's Eve treat
By Melony Carey
— If you are looking for a tintinnabular way to spend New Year’s Eve, try Dorothy Sayers’ 1936 novel, “The Nine Tailors,” a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery that begins with a car accident on New Year’s Eve.

Stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul, Lord Wimsey stands in for a bell ringer who had been stricken with influenza. A nine hour ringing of the bells in the parish called “ringing the nine tailors” signals the death of the man. Lord Wimsey made such an impression on the village with his change-ringing that when prestigious resident Sir Henry Thorpe dies, he is called in to investigate a mangled body uncovered during Sir Henry’s burial.

In a fascinating series of ciphers and plot twists, Sayers weaves a complicated mystery novel. Even more interesting is her detailed research and description of the magnificent ring-changing patterns used in English churches. Decoding the cipher reveals that it is based on the change-ringing patterns used at Fenchurch St. Paul. The largest bell, called Tailor Paul, holds the key to the mystery. The butler may not have done it in this one, but unfortunately for him, he knew who did. Sayers rounds out the four grand dames of English mystery writing popular during the ‘30’s, holding the spot with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham.