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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….“It’s a bit of a climb from this side,” said Parker.
….“It is. He stood here in the ditch, and put one foot into this place where the paling’s broken away and one hand on the top, and hauled himself up. No. 10 must have been a man of exceptional height, strength and agility. I couldn’t get my foot up, let alone reaching the top with my hand, I’m five foot nine. Could you?”
….Parker was six foot, and could just touch the top of the wall with his hand.
….“I might do it – on one of my best days,” he said, “for an adequate object, or after adequate stimulant.”
….“Just so,” said Lord Peter. “Hence we deduce No. 10’s exceptional height and strength.”
….“Yes,” said Parker. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we had to deduce his exceptional shortness and weakness just now, isn’t it?”
….“Oh!” said Peter. “Well – well, as you so rightly say, that is a bit unfortunate.”

* * * * *

In truth I sometimes lost track of where Buddy’s thoughts ended and mine began. For years I couldn’t tell if I liked a movie or a book or a New Yorker short story without consulting him first. Then later I disagreed for the sake of disagreeing, failing to see how much I was still in his sway. In later years on the show I learned to write lines for his monologues in his voice and to come up with the sort of questions he’d be likely to ask in his interviews. He told me once that I’d become the other half of him, which he meant as a compliment but made me feel weird, like his soul had subsumed mine. One reason I left New York for the Peace Corps was a desire to silence his voice within my thoughts

* * * * *

“Let them go,” he said – “let them go, Catharine, those gallants, with their capering horses, their jingling spurs, their plumed bonnets, and their trim mustachios: they are not of our class, nor will we aim at pairing with them. Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird chooses her mate; but you will not see the linnet pair with the sparrow hawk, nor the Robin Redbreast with the kite. My father was an honest burgher of Perth, and could use his needle as well as I can. Did there come war to the gates of our fair burgh, down went needles, thread, and shamoy leather, and out came the good head piece and target from the dark nook, and the long lance from above the chimney. Show me a day that either he or I was absent when the provost made his musters! Thus we have led our lives, my girl, working to win our bread, and fighting to defend it. I will have no son in law that thinks himself better than me; and for these lords and knights, I trust thou wilt always remember thou art too low to be their lawful love, and too high to be their unlawful loon. And now lay by thy work, lass, for it is holytide eve, and it becomes us to go to the evening service, and pray that Heaven may send thee a good Valentine tomorrow.”

* * * * *

….The Osage had been assured by the U.S. government that their Kansas territory would remain their home forever, but before long they were under siege from settlers. Among them was the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later wrote Little House on the Prairie based on her experiences. “Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks her mother in one scene.
….“I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura.”
….“This is Indian country, isn’t it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?”
….One evening, Laura’s father explains to her that the government will soon make the Osage move away: “That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.”

* * * * *

….Bannerman remembered a cartoon he had seen once in an old Punch magazine. Two crocodiles basking in a jungle swamp, heads facing each other above the muddy waters. One of them saying, ‘You know, I keep thinking today is Thursday.’ Bannerman smiled. It had amused him then, as it amused him now. What bloody difference did it make . . . today, tomorrow, yesterday, Thursday? It was ironic that later he would look back on this day as the day it all began. The day after which nothing would ever be quite the same again.
….But at the moment, so far as Bannerman knew, it was just a day like any other. He gazed reflectively from the window a while longer, out across Princes Street, the gardens beyond, and the Castle brooding darkly atop the rain-blackened cliffs. Even when it rained Edinburgh was a beautiful city. Against all odds it had retained its essential character in the face of centuries of change. There was something almost medieval about it; in the crooked hidden alleyways, the cobbled closes, the tall leaning tenements. And, of course, the formidable shape of the Castle itself, stark and powerful against the skyline.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 182…

A fifth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m going dramatically slowly on this challenge because of all the other vintage crime books that have come my way recently, but I haven’t forgotten about it completely!

And since I’ve now read and reviewed all of the books from the fourth batch of MMM books, here goes for the fifth batch…

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Courtesy of Dover Publications via NetGalley. Martin Edwards lists this one under the sub-heading The Ironists. Hmm… ironically, I’m not always all that keen on irony, but we’ll see. The blurb sounds good…

The Blurb says: Dr. Edmund Bickleigh married above his station. Although popular and well respected in his little Devonshire community, he seethes with resentment at the superior social status of his domineering wife, Julia. Bickleigh soothes his inferiority complex by seducing as many of the local women as he possibly can — but with the collapse of his latest fling and a fresh dose of sneering contempt from Julia, the doctor resolves to silence his wife forever and begins plotting the perfect murder.

With Malice Aforethought, Francis Iles produced not just a darkly comic narrative of psychological suspense but also a landmark in crime fiction: for the first time, the murderer’s identity was revealed at the start of the tale. Hailed as a tour de force by the British press of its day, the book retains its shock value and stands at #16 in the Crime Writers’ Association ranking of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. (Oh good grief, not another book list – save me!!)

Challenge details

Book No: 80

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1931

Martin Edwards says: “…what set Malice Aforethought apart was the cool wit of the story-telling, which makes the book compulsive reading despite the shortage of characters with whom readers would wish to identify. It was entirely in keeping with the ironic tone of the book that it was dedicated to the author’s wife, from whom he became divorced less than a year later.”

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Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

I am not one of Ms Sayers’ legion of fans, finding both her and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey snobby and irritatin’. However it’s a long time since I last read one, so maybe I’ve become more open-minded with age. Yeah, right… 😂

The Blurb says: The Duke of Denver, accused of murder, stands trial for his life in the House of Lords.Naturally, his brother Lord Peter Wimsey is investigating the crime – this is a family affair. The murder took place at the duke’s shooting lodge and Lord Peter’s sister was engaged to marry the dead man.But why does the duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Can he really be guilty, or is he covering up for someone?

Challenge details

Book No: 19

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Lord Peter Wimsey was created as a conscious act of escapism by a young writer who was short of money, and experiencing one unsatisfactory love affair after another. Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, second son of the Duke of Denver, began his fictional life as a fantasy figure.”

* * * * *

Death of an Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg

A detecting bishop! Take that, Father Brown! I’m expecting at least an archbishop next time… or maybe the Pope!

The Blurb says: Death of an Airman is an enjoyable and unorthodox whodunit from a writer whose short life was as remarkable as that of any of his fictional creations. When an aeroplane crashes, and its pilot is killed, Edwin Marriott, the Bishop of Cootamundra in Australia, is on hand. In England on leave, the Bishop has decided to learn how to fly, but he is not convinced that the pilot’s death was accidental. In due course, naturally, he is proved right. The Bishop and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appealing pair of detectives, and ultimately a cunning criminal scheme is uncovered.

Challenge details

Book No: 58

Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries

Publication Year: 1934

Edwards says: “The story ‘bubbles over with zest and vitality’, as Dorothy L Sayers said in The Sunday Times; she applauded ‘a most ingenious and exciting plot, full of good puzzles and discoveries and worked out among a varied cast of entertaining characters.’

* * * * *

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

I’ve never thought of CS Forester as a crime writer – Hornblower and The African Queen are what spring to my mind. Sounds good, though…

The Blurb says: Mr Marble is in serious debt, desperate for money to pay his family’s bills, until the combination of a wealthy relative, a bottle of Cyanide and a shovel offer him the perfect solution. In fact, his troubles are only just beginning. Slowly the Marble family becomes poisoned by guilt, and caught in an increasingly dangerous trap of secrets, fear and blackmail. Then, in a final twist of the knife, Mrs Marble ensures that retribution comes in the most unexpected of ways…

First published in 1926, C. S. Forester’s gritty psychological thriller took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

Challenge details

Book No: 74

Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime

Publication Year: 1926

Edwards says: “Marble is haunted by fear that his secret will be discovered, and Forester charts his disintegration in sharp, disdainful prose. Payment Deferred is a short but striking book; despite the young author’s inexperience, it remains a compelling read.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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…

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Little Grey Cells rating:

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 🙂