(Book Review) From the Stacks: Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

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I love a good bog-sucking scene. The kind of scene in which the hero is trapped in a mire and manages through sheer brute strength or clever skill to pull himself out at the last minute. Of course, if you are a villain, then watch out for those bogs, too; your last remaining trace may be your black hat floating on the surface. I’ve never encountered such a quagmire myself, but when I read a scene like this, I know someone’s in trouble:

“He paused to relight his pipe, then squelched steadily on. The path was marked with stout white posts at regular intervals, and presently with hurdles. The reason for this was apparent as one came to the bottom of the valley, for only a few yards on the left began the stretch of rough, reedy tussocks, with slobbering black bog between them, in which anything heavier than a water-wagtail would speedily suffer change to a succession of little bubbles. Wimsey stooped for an empty sardine-tin which lay, horridly battered, by his feet, and slung it idly into the quag. It struck the surface with a noise like a wet kiss, and vanished instantly.”

Pretty good foreshadowing, huh? There is indeed a bog-sinking scene in Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. It is a doozy, on par with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Grimpen Mire told of in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Lord Peter Wimsey first turned up in Sayers’ novel Whose Body? published in 1923. He is the dapper, casual-tongued, widely read, and brilliant sleuth who is, even today, one of the most popular in mystery fiction. He, Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, and Wimsey’s extraordinarily competent valet, Bunter, make up the team that solves the mysteries in the early books in the series. In Clouds of Witness, the skills of the three are amply demonstrated. In quick succession, Parker interviews witnesses in Paris, Wimsey chases down a socialist agitator in London, and Bunter scours Lady Mary Wimsey’s clothes for clues.

This is my second encounter with Clouds of Witness, having read it once many years ago when on a ramble through all of Sayers’ Wimsey mysteries, and the reread didn’t disappoint. It is one of the gems of 1920’s English detective fiction. The novel has everything an ardent mystery lover could want, from intelligent writing to thrills to excellent dialog to a cleverly plotted death and the search for the culprit. The title comes from Hebrews 12:1, which speaks of a “great cloud of witnesses” to the power of God. Sayers’ “clouds of witnesses” are the multiplicity of people who knew Denis Cathcart in life and who stumbled over his body on of the night of his death.

Gerald Wimsey, Duke of Denver and Lord Peter’s elder brother, stands accused of shooting Cathcart, his sister’s fiancé, outside the conservatory of the Duke’s hunting retreat in Yorkshire, where His Grace and a small party have come for the gamebird season. Peter returns from Corsica to find his brother in prison awaiting trial in the House of Lords for the crime; such a trial of a peer only occurs about once every sixty years. Sayers is meticulous in her details of the complex and interesting ceremony associated with it. She also slips in a few sly digs:

“The proceedings were opened by a Proclamation of Silence from the Sergeant-at-Arms, after which the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, kneeling at the foot of the throne, presented the Commission under the Great Seal to the Lord High Steward, who, finding no use for it, returned it with great solemnity to the Clerk of the Crown. The latter accordingly proceeded to read it at dismal and wearying length, affording the assembly an opportunity of judging just how bad the acoustics of the chamber were.”

Dorothy Sayers’ attention to detail is legendary in the mystery world; every aspect of the story, from the many people and clues found by Wimsey, Bunter, and Parker to the weather and landscape of the Yorkshire moors is carefully described in language one might expect to find only in “literary” fiction. Her command of dialog and the variants of English spoken by different classes in London and Yorkshire is very strong, as well. Mr. Grimethorpe of Grider’s Hole is a particularly beastly man with a foul temper. Look at this brief snatch of dialog to get a picture of him:

“’Look here, mester. The tyke were a friend o’ thine? Well, I wor at Stapley Wednesday and Thursday—tha knew that, didn’t tha? And so did thi friend, didn’t ‘un? An’ if I hadn’t, it’d ‘a’ bin the worse for ‘un. He’d ‘a’ been in Peter’s Pot if I’d ‘a’ cot ‘un an’ that’s where tha’ll be thesen in a minute, blast tha! And if I find ‘un sneakin’ here again, I’ll blast every boon in a’s body and send ‘un to look for thee there.’”

(Peter’s Pot being the aforementioned bog.)

I have occasionally seen Sayers’ work criticized for this exacting attention to detail. For example, her extensive discussion of change ringing of church bells in The Nine Tailors (1934) or the confusing reliance on railway timetables in Five Red Herrings (1931) have both come under criticism. But I think she can be indulged, especially in retrospect, as her precision helps her present a fascinating picture of the United Kingdom between the wars. Some of my friends have said they enjoy Sayers’ works as much for the sense of the time as for the mysteries themselves!

Sayers was one of the most popular British mystery writers of the 1920’s, along with Agatha Christie and G. K. Chesterton. Compared to Christie, her output of detective fiction was small, consisting of the eleven Wimsey novels and a number of short stories. She was also well-known for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (which she considered her best work) and for her works on Christian theology.

Some of the current trends in mystery fiction are superlatively grim. I offer Dorothy L. Sayers as an alternative to graphic depictions of horrendous crimes and extensive discussions of victims’ innards. Her works remind me of a time when clever plotting, eccentric characterizations, and witty writing were the mark of a fine detective story. If you feel like an escapist break into the England of the 1920s, lovingly preserved in the words of a master, Clouds of Witness will delight.

Clouds of Witness is available now at Greenville Public Library.

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