Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey 2) by Dorothy L Sayers

My last Wimsey…

😐 😐

The fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey is found shot dead outside the Yorkshire shooting lodge her brother, the Duke of Denver, has taken for the season. The subsequent inquest finds that Cathcart’s death was murder, and points the finger firmly in the direction of the Duke. Lady Mary had found the Duke standing over the corpse of Captain Denis Cathcart as she had been on her way out of the house at 3 a.m., for reasons she refuses to specify. Added to this is the indisputable fact that the Duke and Cathcart had had a quarrel earlier in the evening, loud enough to be overheard by the various guests staying in the house. When his faithful batman Bunter shows him the report of the murder in the newspaper, Lord Peter Wimsey, brother of the Duke and Lady Mary, rushes to Yorkshire to save his brother from the gallows.

I’m not a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but this is one of the books in my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge to read the novels listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Happily for me, it’s one of the earliest books in the series, the second, before the arrival on the scene of Ms Sayer’s tedious alter-ego, Harriet Vane, and Peter’s interminable courtship of her. Unhappily, the snobbery which infests her books is already present – cultural, intellectual, economic, geographic: you name it, she’s snobbish about it.

Still, at least at this early stage Sayers does concentrate more on the detection than on Lord Peter’s tiresome character, though there’s more than enough of that too. He’s the type of amateur detective to whom the dull police are delighted to hand over their cases, especially this one, since the main desire of the policeman in charge of the case is to languish after the lovely Lady Mary, whose exalted birth means she is far above the reach even of this cultured, well-educated gentlemanly plod.

Challenge details:
Book: 19
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1926

I’m by no means alone in often mentioning the sexism that pervades early detective fiction, but it always stands out particularly for me when the author is female (which, ironically, is quite sexist of me, I suppose). I can’t help feeling that Dorothy L didn’t think much of her fellow women. Here we have a wife so dull she apparently deserves to be cheated on, a couple of mistresses, one out for sex, the other out for money, and a dippy aristocratic type dabbling with those outrageous socialists who threaten the moral fabric of Good Old England, with their uncouthness and revolutionary ideas (like preventing the rich from exploiting the poor). Fortunately, all socialists are, as we know, snivelling cowards, plus their table manners and dress sense are terrible, so she’ll surely be saved from her girly silliness and be “persuaded” to marry a pillar of the establishment and breed up new generations of true blue-blooded Englishmen, just as she should!

Dorothy L Sayers

Oh dear, my reverse snobbery is showing again – I do apologise! What I meant to say is that the book is quite entertaining in some respects, and some parts of it are well written and quite atmospheric, such as when Wimsey and Bunter find themselves lost on the moor in a fog. But the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out, and, in case you haven’t spotted it, I do find Lord Peter’s insufferable superiority… well… insufferable. Thankfully this is the only Wimsey novel on Martin Edwards’ list, so I shall be spared reading any more of them, and you will be spared reading any more reviews of them. Win-win!

PS If you’ve never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, in fairness I feel I should say my reaction is purely allergic. Many, many people love these books, and you really shouldn’t rely on my opinion of them.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag by Dorothy L Sayers

Wimsey and the art of motorcycling…

 

I am about to commit bookish blasphemy, so sensitive crime fiction lovers may wish to look away now. I’ve never liked Lord Peter Wimsey. There! I’ve said it! But how could I possibly have a series on great ‘tecs and not include him? So, like the martyr I am, I have cautiously approached one of Ms Sayers’ short stories, and I freely admit to being much taken by the title. Will she win me over? All will be revealed in this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag

by Dorothy L Sayers

 

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers

 

The Great North Road wound away like a flat, steel-grey ribbon. Up it, with the sun and wind behind them, two black specks moved swiftly. To the yokel in charge of the hay-wagon they were only two of “they dratted motor-cyclists”, as they barked and zoomed past him in rapid succession.

The two motor-cyclists continue to chase each other at ridiculous speeds up the Great North Road until eventually they are stopped by an officious policeman who takes their details and informs them they’ll be summonsed for speeding. Aggrieved, the first motor-cyclist, Walters, explains that he was merely trying to catch the other man, Simpkins, to return a bag that had fallen off his bike thirty miles back at Hatfield. Simpkins vehemently denies all knowledge of the bag. Our policeman isn’t terribly interested in this disagreement… until a passing A.A. man notices that the bag seems to be wet and horribly sticky in one corner…

The constable proved the split seam in silence, and then turned hurriedly round to wave away a couple of young women who had stopped to stare. The A.A. man peered curiously, and then started back with a sensation of sickness.
“Ow, Gawd!” he gasped. “It’s curly—it’s a woman’s.”

Suddenly the ownership of the bag takes on a new importance. So it’s unfortunate for Lord Peter Wimsey that it’s just at this moment he chooses to appear on the scene…

“Hullo, officer!” said a voice behind them. “What’s all the excitement? You haven’t seen a motor-cyclist go by with a little bag on his carrier, I suppose?”

I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter...
I do love Edward Petherbridge and he made a fine Lord Peter…

On learning about the horror in the bag, Lord Peter hastily explains that it’s not his, though it looks like the one he has been pursuing. He explains that a similar bag, containing some jewellery, had been stolen from his car the day before…

I made enquiries through Scotland Yard, and was informed to-day that a bag of precisely similar appearance had been cloak-roomed yesterday afternoon at Paddington, main line. I hurried round there, and was told by the clerk that just before the police warning came through the bag had been claimed by a man in motor-cycling kit. A porter said he saw the man leave the station, and a loiterer observed him riding off on a motor-bicycle.

And so Lord Peter had joined the chase up the Great North Road. It’s now up to the police to decide which of the three men is telling the truth. Of course, they quickly eliminate Lord Peter from all suspicion, because… well, because he’s a Lord and speaks with a posh accent, primarily, but also because he has helped the police in the past. And he helps them again now by making a brilliant suggestion well beyond the intellectual capacities of the force’s finest…

“Well, look here,” said the man addressed as “my lord”, “I’ve got an idea for what it’s worth. Suppose, superintendent, you turn out as many of your men as you think adequate to keep an eye on three desperate criminals, and we all tool down to Hatfield together. I can take two in my ‘bus at a pinch, and no doubt you have a police car. If this thing did fall off the carrier, somebody beside Mr. Walters may have seen it fall.”

But even once it’s discovered which of the men took the bag from the cloakroom, there’s still another twist to come…

* * * * *

OK, I hate the snobbery in the Wimsey stories, however much disguised by humour. I hate the grovelling forelock-tugging attitude of all and sundry to the foppish Lord Peter. And I hate the portrayal of working-class people as loutish, mentally-challenged bumpkins, and their silly dialects. Oh, and I really hate Lord Peter’s mocking condescension to his social ‘inferiors’.

...but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me...
…but Ian Carmichael will always be the definitive Lord Peter to me…

That said, I admit the story is well-written and full of humour. While it’s not a ‘fair play’ story since there’s no way to work out the solution before it’s given, the plot is clever and fun with a nice little twist in the tail. Lord Peter goes beyond deduction towards brilliant intuition at a couple of points, and the police are left trailing in his wake, but that’s fairly standard for detective stories of this era. There’s not much in the way of characterisation – the police are stereotypes, and it’s clearly aimed at readers of the novels who will already be familiar with Lord Peter’s history. But that doesn’t matter, since it’s not aiming to be more than a light entertainment, and it succeeds well on that level. I did enjoy it in the end, but not enough to want to subject myself to re-reading the novels, I fear. Apologies to all passionate Wimsey fans everywhere!

Want to find out what happened? Here’s a link to the story…

Or here’s a reading of it by the wonderful Ian Carmichael…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating:

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂