By Dorothy L Sayers | first published in 1926 by T. Fisher Unwin |
Review: 2016 edition by Hodder & Stoughton
Plot Summary: Mary, sister to Gerald, the Duke of Denver, and Lord Peter Wimsey, is engaged to marry a Captain Denis Cathcart and they are enjoying a week’s shooting together at the Duke’s country residence at Riddlesdale. On the evening of 13thOctober, a letter from Tommy Freeborn, a friend of Gerald’s arrives from Paris and accuses Cathcart of cheating at cards. The duke decides to confront Cathcart with the accusation that night and as a consequence the two argue loud enough for Gerald’s other guests to hear. Cathcart eventually leaves the house in a foul temper, saying his wedding to Lady Mary was off. Gerald shouts after him not to be a ‘silly arse’, adding he should stay until the morning before asking a servant to leave the conservatory door unlocked for Cathcart’s return before he went to bed.
In the early hours of the following morning, Gerald tells the police that he had been unable to sleep, so had taken a stroll around the garden and on his return at 3am, fell over something in the conservatory. He had just discovered it was Captain Cathcart’s body when Lady Mary appeared, calling out “Oh God, Gerald, you’ve killed him!” A slight pause then she added “Oh, it’s Denis,” in a tone that suggested she was expecting someone else. Later, Lady Mary told the police that she heard a gunshot around 3am and, thinking it were poachers, decided to confront them. At the coroner’s court, her words twisted, Lady Mary suddenly broke down then claimed she was too ill to be questioned any further.
When he learns all this, Lord Peter is convinced that both his brother and sister are lying, but why? That’s what he didn’t understand.
What I say: Clouds of Witnessis the second book from Dorothy L Sayers (following Whose Body) featuring her amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. My first encounter with this novel came in the form of its 1974 BBC radio adaption, with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Peter Jones as the deliciously annoyingly verbose Bunter. At the time of broadcast, Carmichael and Jones were in their 50s playing men some 20-years younger than their actual age. Both actors went on to reprise their respective roles until 1983, when Carmichael and Jones were in their 60s. The radio adaptions of the first nine Lord Peter Wimsey books, featuring both Carmichael and Jones, can still be heard on Radio 4 Extra from time-to-time, so I’ll leave it you to judge if they ‘cut the mustard’.
No one believes the lies told by the Duke or his sister, and of course, Gerald being a gentleman stuck by his story even when it was blatantly untrue. As is the way with such novels, interference in the shape of Detective Inspector Parker from the Metropolitan Police (aka New Scotland Yard) is not welcomed, so the local inspector and the coroner has the Duke ‘banged to rights’ for the murder of Captain Denis Cathcart, despite evidence that at least one other unknown person was involved. Of course, Parker saves the day by protecting what evidence remains with objects around the place, flower pots and the like, and between them, Parker and Wimsey unpick a version of the events for the night in question.
That is the thing with crime fiction from this ‘golden era’ (I put quote marks around that phrase simply because I wonder if, in 50, 60 or 70 years’ time, writers Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwall or Sara Paretsky, to name but three, won’t be remembered as part of new ‘golden era’?) is that the featured detective has someone else who can look at the evidence and come up with a solution, just not the right solution. In Sayers’ case it is Parker and his valet, Bunter, who is Wimsey’s forensics assistant on the side. Both contribute to the narrative that only Wimsey can put together in the right order, and never solve the crime themselves. That sounds like a criticism, I guess it is but it isn’t the first time it’s been made. Sayers herself writes, using Wimsey’s voice, that he gets all the glory but it’s Parker that has to do all the hard work.
I mean, in real life, would a police commissioner ring up an amateur detective, regardless how aristocratic he might be, asking him to ‘pop round to New Scotland Yard’ to be given a report in person on the case in which he has an interest but no official role, while leaving the official police detective to twiddle his thumbs in the amateur detective’s Piccadilly flat? I just cannot see that happening, not even in 1926. And yet, lovers of this kind of crime fiction, and I consider myself among them, suspend belief for the sake of a good story.
Likewise, today’s readers need to suspend their belief when it came to Wimsey’s return journey across the Atlantic, having secured vital evidence just before his brother’s trial. It is a brief interlude in the book, but plot-wise it is essential if Wimsey is to be there at the finale. In 1926, flying the Atlantic was not only difficult, it was rare. Alcock and Brown first crossed the ocean non-stop in a converted Vimy bomber in 1919, while Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing in the Spirit of St Louisdidn’t happen until 1927. Commercial aircraft did not fly across the Atlantic non-stop until 1939, although the airship Graf Zeppelinfirst made the journey in 1928; still two years after the book was published. For the 1926 reader, however, this would have held out a future of infinite possibilities, even if it was to be confined to the moderately few until the 1960s.
One of the reviewers featured below (Beyond the Dreamline) broached the subject of Grimethorpe’s domestic violence, and having mentioned it, perhaps I need to add my own thoughts. Reviewer Faith Mudge wrote that she was disappointed in Wimsey’s reaction, but in Sayers’ and Wimsey’s defence it is what would have happened in 1926. Writing in 2016, as Mudge was or in 2018, as I am, it is easy to say that abuse of any kind is wrong, pure and simple, and the reaction displayed in this book is not acceptable today. And that’s the point, we are writing from today’s perspective. It doesn’t make the abuse less wrong because its written in the past, and we are talking about fiction, but back then interfering in what happens between man and wife was considered a taboo, not done, and we would be sanitizing the past for our own convenience if we hid from it. There are a good many things that occurred in the past that are no longer tolerable but if we excised any mention of it in today’s society then we are losing an opportunity of opening up a discussion on the things from the past we now consider wrong and inhuman, and why we now consider it so.
It is Grimethorpe, of course, who also provides moments of humour in the book, or rather he gave Lord Peter an opportunity to do his ‘silly arse’ act, preferring to run away from violence at that point than to confront it head on. Lord Peter played the stupid toff again when trying to be one of the boys in Grimethorpe’s regular pub in Stapley, guessing correctly that his quarry would prefer an establishment with a landlord and clientele as surly as himself. Of course, Lord Peter got nowhere, so it is lucky that Bunter is more able at bringing himself down to the common man, and got the wanted information. You could say, Wimsey and Bunter are a new version of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ scenario. While Wimsey distracts, Bunter extracts, usually from a charming young lady nearby. That is why I go with the idea that Bunter is about the same age as Lord Peter; at the time of the book, 36, it then being conceivable that a young woman would be flattered by Bunter’s attentions and open up, rather than an older, authoritative father figure and have her say nothing.
The plot for Clouds of Witnessis picked from Manon Lescoutby Antoine Francois Provost. Published in 1731, it is the seventh and last part of Memoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité(Memoirs and Adventures of a man of quality), yet is it conceivable that this isn’t the book Sayers wanted to write.
Consider the evidence. Captain Denis Cathcart has spent almost his entire adult life abroad and Parker discovered from the concierge at Cathcart’s Paris apartment that he rarely entertained women there, just men.
Wimsey, Parker and Arbuthnot have observed that Cathcart is very secretive by nature, for instance, when Cathcart is given a letter on the evening of his death, he glances at the handwriting on the envelope and slips it into his pocket. Arbuthnot, on the other hand, admits to opening his letter straight away and reading the contents and when Cathcart is given permission to do the same, he is told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business.
When Cathcart asked Mary Wimsey to marry him, he also made it perfectly obvious that it was a marriage of convenience and that he didn’t mind what she got up to, as long as Mary was discrete. By inference, the union was not going to be one of both body and soul. In fact, it was going to be totally loveless on his part, not that Mary cared, she didn’t love Cathcart either but the arrangement suited her.
Could it be that Cathcart was gay in earlier drafts? The plot for Manon Lescoutcould work for a protagonist of a different gender or sexual orientation. It could explain why Cathcart chose to spend so much time living abroad. Again, Sayers wrote, using Cathcart’s voice through Mary, that the French understood sex better than we Britons. Yet, having said that, even more of a taboo than domestic abuse, homosexuality was just not considered by polite society at the time. Could it be Sayers’ then publisher (T Fisher Unwin) was wary of the Lord Chamberlain’s ire and got her to make changes to the original manuscript?
That’s pure conjecture, of course.
Regardless of what I say, or despite it, Clouds of Witnessis quite capable of standing on its own right, as it is, so why am I fretting?
What they said: “Lord Peter Wimsey; a cross between Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster.”
San Francisco Book Review
“After 78 years after publication, it showed a vanished… exaggerated aristocratic world. … The idea of a witness simulating illness is a feasible one for a book set in any period but I doubt that a modern malingerer would take Ipecacuanha.” (An emetic or expectorant made from a south American shrub of the same name.) … “Lord Peter and his friends and relatives certainly appear now as caricatures does not prevent us appreciating the wit and observational skills of Sayers.”
Reviewing the Evidence (Feb 2004), reviewing New English Library edition.
“I find it difficult to separate the period — typical issues of an old book from the story itself. That was a particular problem reading clouds of witness because chunks of the plot required you to see certain things are either acceptable or unalterable, and both left me very frustrated. … The actual mystery is intriguing, if a bit messy, but the ending didn’t make an enormous amount of sense.”
Beyond the Dreamline (Mar 2016), Chivers Press (1988) edition
“This is only the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales. I felt Sayers was still developing her craft, but already we see development of the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter and Parker, and their relationships.”
Bob on Books, October 2016, reviewing Open Road Media digital version from 2012.