Clouds of Witness

clouds of witnessI 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.

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13 Responses to Clouds of Witness

  1. heavenali says:

    What a coincidence, I was talking about this book yesterday with a friend. I love Sayers, and though I think I prefer the ones with Harriet Vane, this is a great early mystery from Sayers.

    • Jenny says:

      Isn’t it wonderful? It’s funny — there were several places I laughed out loud — but it’s also serious, and the ending is reaching toward the wrenching effect she’ll find in Murder Must Advertise. It’s a lovely piece of detection, too. Nicely done all round.

  2. Lisa says:

    Having read more “police procedural” mysteries, I have been noticing how Charles Parker defers to Peter in at least the early cases. It isn’t so much the amateur “assisting” Scotland Yard as taking over the cases! I do enjoy this one, for the Wimsey family dynamics. And if we have to have the Loathsome Helen, at least we get the Dowager Duchess.
    Peter was my first real literary love, and so it was a year or two before I could bring myself to read the Harriet books. Someday I will drive to Austin to read “The Wimsey Papers” at the Ransom Center. I can’t believe they still haven’t been published, even if the estate allowed Jill Paton Walsh to use them in her continuations.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t read those JPW books, Lisa. What do you think of them?

      I agree about Parker. He does a lot of the boring leg-work, but all the thinking is Peter’s. Nice of him not to resent it!

      • Lisa says:

        I haven’t read them either. I’d like to read any fragments that DLS left behind, but not continuations by another author. It would be like someone else continuing Lymond’s story!

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I haven’t read this one in ages. I usually find early Peter’s “happy stream of chatter” a bit too annoying, but what you say about the postwar context and his shell shock makes me curious to try it again with that context more in mind. When I first read this series (decades ago!) I didn’t really know anything about WWI and I’m not sure I even thought about this aspect of them; like you I’ve always preferred the Harriet ones. His war experiences and subsequent difficulties are definitely parts of them too, of course, especially Busman’s Honeymoon.

    • Jenny says:

      I was surprised on re-reading this to see that context coming out so clearly. I didn’t mention some of the other social pieces: the bolshevism and Trotskyism, the “fast young people” we’ll see again in Dian de Momerie, and so forth. It paints a pretty interesting picture. One thing we don’t know is what Gerald’s war was like, do we?

  4. lbloxham says:

    A professor in grad school alerted me to the shell-shock in Lord Peter’s life (and to my professor’s own WWII shell-shock) and to Bunter’s role in Lord Peter’s well-being. When I began my journey this year rereading the Lord Peters in order, I focused again on that aspect.

    • Jenny says:

      Bunter is really the most consistent relationship in his life (except perhaps for his mother) and is someone who knows about the war without having to talk about it.

  5. I’ve never read a Sayers book (gasp!) As I do love Christie I should give her a try.

  6. Oh goody, I am glad you liked this. I haven’t loved any of the non-Harriet Vane books as much as the Harriet Vane ones (obvs), apart from Murder Must Advertise. But I’ve always suspected Clouds of Witness would be excellent, so I’ve been saving it for a rainy day. Sounds like it was a great strategy by me! I shall continue to save it!

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