I began reading Dorothy Sayers about thirty years ago. Maybe even a little longer, actually, when I was around eleven or twelve. I started reading detective fiction with an alarming Agatha Christie binge and some of those Alfred Hitchcock story collections and some Josephine Tey, and then I ran across Dorothy Sayers and it was all over: I had found my ideal mystery author.
I read them all many times as an adolescent (Sayers is an author who rewards re-reading), but over the years I’ve gravitated to the books with Harriet Vane in them, and it has been years — I don’t know how many years — since I’ve read any of the others. When I recently had an irresistible impulse to read one of these mysteries, I found I hardly remembered what Clouds of Witness was about. Re-reading it was a perfect combination of surprise and deep familiarity.
I won’t go into the complicated plot here, in which Lord Peter’s brother Gerald is tried for the murder of Denis Cathcart and in which he also suspects his sister Lady Mary may have been involved in the shooting of the man, who was her fiancé. I will just dwell for a few minutes on some of the things I noticed on this reading.
This is a thoroughly postwar novel. It is made very clear indeed that detection is Lord Peter’s salvation from “nerves,” which is a euphemism for shell-shock, and that thousands more like him are not so lucky. Part of the reason Denis Cathcart is in such a bad way is that he was financially ruined by the war. Lady Mary was in the VAD, and got in with (what her family considers) bad company; she hasn’t gotten quite right from her war ever since. Mental, economic, moral, personal, and social breakdown are everywhere here. The only benefit the war has conferred is Bunter, who is quite literally Lord Peter’s lifeline at one stage in the novel: he pulls him out of the Yorkshire bog as he may once have pulled him out of the bombed trenches. But the everyday provision of toast and warmth and joy is just as much a lifeline, in its own way. It is an understated relationship, but not an unstated one.
This is a novel about family breakdown. Lord Peter clearly doesn’t know his siblings well, and they don’t know or appreciate him either. Gerald is cheating on his wife. We never even see “Pickled Gherkins” (until Gaudy Night, oh Lord.) Gerald couldn’t possibly be less grateful for Lord Peter’s efforts in the way of detection, though it keeps him from being hanged, and Lady Mary is initially also furious with the sleuthing and the impenetrable babble. The only other family we see — the Grimethorpes — is more dysfunctional still. Is this an outcome of the war, as well?
Sayers’s treatment of domestic abuse here is pretty brutal. We are given convincing evidence that Mr. Grimethorpe is a murderous abuser, essentially waiting eagerly to be triggered by jealousy to kill his wife (and possibly his child), and that the prosecutorial team of the Duke of Denver considers this death unfortunate, but necessary if the witness of Mrs. Grimethorpe will save their client. Perhaps she’ll be better off, anyway. WHAT. I was horrified by this entire part of the plot, and especially by the way Lord Peter kept rhapsodizing about poor Mrs. Grimethorpe’s hair and mouth, and even more especially by the thought that given her situation, Gerald couldn’t keep it in his pants. Come ON, Jerry. We are talking life and death, here!
(I ought to append here the throwaway statement that Denis Cathcart apparently met his mistress when she was seventeen. Ew.)
The interesting thing is that all these issues — post-traumatic stress, abuse, family dysfunction, social and economic chaos — are neatly screened by Lord Peter’s happy stream of chatter, whether it’s literary references, wordplay, the narration of his detection, or just a soft flow of burbling not far afield from his mother, the Duchess’s. It’s easy to be taken in, and to think that this is a light novel about nothing much. It’s 200 pages, and it’s absolutely packed.
I enjoyed reading this more than I’ve enjoyed many a mystery past. Dorothy Sayers, you never let me down.