Open Road Integrated Media are publishing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy L Sayers as e-books. I was delighted to be offered Clouds of Witness by NetGalley. It’s the second Wimsey book, first published in 1926. Since not everyone has been reading DLS for years, here’s a brief introduction.
Lord Peter Wimsey, that ‘young sprig of the nobility’ is the younger son of the late Duke of Denver. The current Duke is his brother Gerald and they have a sister, Lady Mary. The dowager duchess is happily very much alive. Peter is five foot nine, slightly built but very strong. He has fair hair, a ‘long nose’ and is usually immaculately dressed. “He (Peter) was a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist.” He lives at 110 Piccadilly with his manservant, Bunter, who helped him overcome ‘nerves’ after the first world war and is his dearest friend, although neither of them would put it like that, being sticklers for protocol. Here’s a description of the flat: “A leaping wood fire was merrily reflected in the spotless surface of the black baby grand; the mellow calf bindings of Lord Peter’s rare editions glowed softly against the black and primrose walls; the vases were filled with tawny chrysanthemums; the latest editions of all the papers were on the table—as though the owner had never been absent.” Wouldn’t you like to move right in?
As Clouds of Witness opens, Lord Peter is on his way home from Corsica when Bunter alerts him to the news that his brother has been arrested for murder. “Dear me! Poor old Gerald arrested for murder. Uncommonly worryin’ for him, poor chap. Always hated my bein’ mixed up with police-courts.” The ‘family sleuth’ returns to England to find that Gerald, an honourable but stupid man, is refusing to defend himself other than by saying that he didn’t do it. His sister, who was engaged to the victim, has shut herself in her room and is obviously lying about something. Luckily, Peter’s chum Chief Inspector Parker is on the case and the two mull it over together. They make a good team: ““I observe,” said Parker, “that the paper is rather crumpled and dirty, and smells powerfully of tobacco and Russian leather, and deduce that you have been keeping it in your pocket-book.” “No!” said Wimsey incredulously . “And when you actually saw me take it out! Holmes, how do you do it?”
There are Wuthering Heights-style encounters in Yorkshire with Grimethorpe of Grider’s Hole; very melodramatic but significant, as it turns out. Peter eventually deduces that the clue to the mystery is in Paris, so the busy bee travels back there and to the United States in search of the answer. Meanwhile the full panoply of the law required when a peer of the realm is to be tried is set in motion and amusingly described. The trial scene gives full scope to the oratory of counsel, Sir Impey Biggs but Gerald’s life hangs in the balance until the timely arrival of Peter, almost literally waving a piece of paper.
There are more intriguing mysteries than this one, some of them written by DLS herself. You don’t read her just for the plots, though, but for the style and above all for the complex character of Lord Peter. Sayers was very erudite and liked to pepper her books with quotations and allusions, many of them in Peter’s conversation. When asked his name, for instance, “Oh, only Brooks of Sheffield,” said Lord Peter, with a happy grin. “Good morning. I won’t forget to recommend your beer.” The very title of this book is a play on a passage from Hebrews: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,” I’ve quoted the King James version as that’s what Sayers would have had in mind. She also liked to use a lot of French in her books. In this one there are several pages of a long letter, written in French, which is crucial to the plot. (Don’t worry, a translation is provided.) In later books Peter’s French uncle provides (in French, of course), an introduction analysing his nephew’s character. If you read French and get all the references, it adds in a knowing way to the reading pleasure, but it could all go right over your head and you’d still enjoy a good story.
Peter’s character is not fully formed in Clouds of Witness and we see much more of his ‘silly ass’ persona than we do in the later books. This can be quite irritating. Perhaps at that stage of his career Dorothy L Sayers hadn’t fallen so completely for her creation as she did later. I do prefer the later Peter, especially in Murder Must Advertise but Clouds of Witness is very worth reading. You just have to ask yourself, ‘if this had been Dorothy L Sayers’ only venture into detective fiction, would it still be read today?’ I’d say, yes, because of its originality and the charm of the main character.