Book review: Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L. Sayers

The second Wimsey novel is a bundle of delightful family drama, though I always have trouble remembering which word is plural in the title. It never makes sense to me until I hear it explained in-context near the end.

The book begins with Peter taking a much-needed vacation with Bunter, directly after the conclusion of Whose Body? Unfortunately, his rest is brought to an abrupt halt when a newspaper arrives emblazoned with the headline that Peter’s brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for the murder of their sister’s fiance. And it was that same sister, Lady Mary, who was the first to suggest Gerald had shot him.

Peter takes the first flight over to land in this sticky mess, populated by a list of colorful characters who become familiar in future books: the Honorable Freddy Arbuthnot, the Marchbanks, the Pettigrew-Robinsons, the two duchesses, and Officer Charles Parker.

Peter and Charles set to the nitty-gritty detective work, both around the site of the murder and in Paris, where the victim used to live. Peter soon meets the occupants of a nearby household, the miserable Grider’s Hole, where a violent devil of a man terrorizes his (of course) young, beautiful wife, their small daughter, and the farm hands. Peter also observes a warning sign for the neighboring bog, which turns out to be the figurative gun on the mantle piece.

This visit is also the first occasion Peter proves he’s not as physically hapless as he looks: when Grimethorpe rushes him, Peter’s able to catch his fist and twist him into a hold until Grimethorpe relents on his murderous intentions. Nevertheless, Peter has to speedily depart the property, beating off Grimethorpe’s dogs with his walking stick.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the story is when Peter almost perishes in the villainous bog, barely kept alive by Bunter (despite Peter’s entreaties for him to keep away) until help arrives . I also like the next part, when Peter is barely conscious as he’s carried back into Grider’s Hole, and Bunter makes sure they get a room together (and also, the text mentions, undresses and rubs him to restore circulation). The beauty of fiction is that everyone’s free to make their own conclusions.

I love the drama of the scene for obvious reasons, but I also like it because it’s explicitly mentioned as one scene where Bunter did not know to beware the fog about to descend on them. It’s very important to me, in all my butler stories, for even the most knowledgeable and competent of butlers to also be human. It’s no fun if they’re two-dimensional.

We also meet a couple lawyers: Murbles and the recurring and formidable Sir Impey Biggs. Personally speaking, lawyers give me hives, and Sayers is unsparing in portraying how manipulative they can be. At least Biggs makes up for it in eloquence and a surprisingly non-judgmental attitude toward the mistress who was the cause of Cathgart’s self-destruction.

I also like how this book gives Peter the distinction of being the first-ever passenger on a transatlantic flight, on a speedy journey from an investigation in New York City back to London, to arrive just in time to provide crucial evidence for his brother’s trial and to spare both him and Mrs. Grimethorpe the humiliation of a public revelation of their affair, in order to establish his alibi.

The other side of the story is Lady Mary’s romantic woes, as she’s had pretty awful taste in men. I don’t mean to speak ill of her character; she’s actually quite familiar to the modern reader, as we have today many privileged upper-class white women passionate about social justice issues. She’s not too far from Britta of the TV show Community, for instance. So it does make sense in that time setting for Mary to take up with a communist, only he’s a cowardly cad who also tries to shoot Peter for no particular reason.

Charles, meanwhile, falls hopelessly in love with her during their interviews, especially as she heroically (and misguidedly) tries to take the blame for murdering her own fiance, despite how her own mouth accused Gerald of it as soon as she found the body. I say “hopelessly” because Charles feels hopeless about it, plus I think it’s adorable how he’s smitten with her for making such awful choices. Once Peter realizes Charles’ condition and encourages him, Charles responds angrily:

“You needn’t be insulting. I know she’s Lady Mary Wimsey and damnably rich and I’m only a common police official with nothing a year and a pension to look forward to, but there’s no need to sneer about it.”

“I’m not sneering,” retorted Peter indignantly. “I can’t imagine why anybody should want to marry my sister, but you’re a good friend of mine and a damn good sort, and you’ve my good word for what it’s worth. Besides — dash it all, man! — to put it on the lowest grounds, do look what it might have been! A Socialist Conchy of neither bowels nor breeding, or a cardsharping dark horse with a mysterious past! Mother and Jerry must have got to the point when they’d welcome a decent, God-fearing plumber, let alone a policeman. Only thing I’m afraid of is that Mary, havin’ such beastly bad taste in blokes, won’t know how to appreciate a really decent fellow like you, old son.”

The book ends with a tidy wrap-up of Mr. Grimethorpe (mowed down by a conveniently out-of-control vehicle, after Grimethorpe makes one last attempt at murder), followed by a dissonant jolly note: a comedic scene of Peter, Freddy, and Charles all getting absolutely trashed in a public place, and it falls to Inspector Sugg to bundle them into taxis to take them home. And Sugg doesn’t even try to fine them! I guess he understood his place, dealing with a lord.

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