RogerBW's Blog

Clouds of Witness, Dorothy Sayers 08 February 2018

1926 mystery, second of Sayers' books about Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey's brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering his prospective brother-in-law. Why won't he say what he was doing in the conservatory at three in the morning?

The answer is entirely in keeping with his character as the book has gone to some trouble to establish it – and that's true of all the answers here. Although there is an unfortunate amount of coincidence, everyone turns out to have acted in a way that's true to their natures.

There are plenty of complications, some deliberate, some not, and I won't go into details; some of the joy of this book is in discovering them. (It's about ten years since I last read this, and I'd forgotten several of them.) There's a memorable action sequence during a trans-Atlantic flight (yes, in 1926). But there are also lies and deceptions and unreliable witnesses all over the place.

"I fancy I did hear somebody moving about," said Mary, "but I didn't think much about it."

"Quite right," said Peter, "when I hear people movin' about the house at night, I'm much too delicate-minded to think anything at all."

"Of course," interposed the Duchess, "particularly in England, where it is so oddly improper to think."

There's a lot of the Wimsey family here, and one gains a greater appreciation of the sort of atmosphere in which Peter grew up, and how he became himself. (The essay as by his uncle, explaining Peter's story in detail, appears in many editions, but should probably be skipped by the series reader; chronologically it comes some time after Strong Poison. It's more enjoyable to put things together from the primary text.)

This book could also serve as an example of how to write significant female characters: there are several of them here, of varying degrees of importance, and they each manage to be defined by their own personalities, rather than just being "the woman". Some of them are sensible; some are silly; all are real. Many books written since have done a worse job.

Truly enough the '47 port was a dead thing; the merest ghost of its old flame and flavour hung about it. Lord Peter held his glass poised a moment.

"It is like the taste of a passion that has passed its noon and turned to weariness," he said, with sudden gravity. "The only thing to do is to recognise bravely that it is dead, and put it away."

There is always a sense of fun here, as often with Sayers; and as always, some of it has a biting edge. Followed by Unnatural Death.

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