Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Clouds of Witness”


Clouds of WitnessAs 1926’s Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers opens, Lord Peter Wimsy has just returned from the wilds in Corsica, where Bunter has had to allow him to go without regular baths and has turned his photography from fingerprints to scenery. Wimsy returns just in time for a new investigation, but this time the stakes are much greater than anything he has ever faced because it is his own brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, who stands accused of murder.

One night while staying at Riddlesdale in Yorkshire for the hunting, Gerald has a big fight with Denis Cathcart, the fiance of Gerald and Peter’s younger sister, Lady Mary. Gerald has just received a letter from an old friend with the news that Cathcart was known for cheating at cards, described as a sin worse than adultery or murder to those in the aristocracy. Cathcart storms out, and at 3 a.m., Gerald comes back inside after what he describes as a “stroll” of a few hours amid a big storm, only to stumble over the body of Cathcart, shot with Gerald’s revolver, at the entrance to the conservatory. Suddenly he hears a gasp from Lady Mary and the words, “Gerald, you’ve killed him!” Then, “Oh! It’s Denis!” With this incident, Gerald finds himself accused of murder, especially since he refuses to tell anyone what he was really doing between 11 and 3, when Cathcart was killed.

Lord Peter comes onto the scene at this point, excited and eager to prove his brother’s innocence. He works with his close friend, Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, to find all the clues, being given many red herrings that he has to solve in order to dig down to the truth.

Clouds of Witness has an interesting plot with many clever avenues of detection. It has really interesting depictions of the local community in Yorkshire, including the extreme fog that descends upon the region and the bogs that people can fall into and die from. There are certain scenes which create intense drama and nervous anticipation. However, there are also other scenes that get a little tiresome, especially at the beginning of the book when the events of the case get explained in great detail and at the end with the long summing up by Sir Impy Biggs, the counsel for the defense, during the trial.

The characters really shine in this book, especially Lord Peter, Bunter, and Parker. Peter shows his sudden periods of brilliance and works diligently to save his brother. Ironically, from his prison after being arrested for murder, Gerald still thinks his younger brother is bringing down his family’s reputation by doing his amateur sleuthing. Peter also shows his special interest in human nature throughout the book, making personal connections with and charming everyone of every class along the way.

Lord Peter almost meets his match in conversation when he encounters Mr. Grimethorpe of Grider’s Hole, a man as surly and rude as Peter is genial. In describing the inquisitive nature of Lord Peter, in relation to Mr. Grimethorpe, the book states, “The fascinating problem of a Yorkshire farmer who habitually set the dogs on casual visitors imperatively demanded investigation and a personal interview.”

One detail I enjoy in the book takes place when Lord Peter first visits Grider’s Hole before he meets Mr. Grimethorpe. In talking to Grimethorpe’s hired man, Wimsy bursts out with a series of jingles about the wonders of Grimethorpe’s products. This foreshadows Lord Peter’s job as a copy advertiser in Murder Must Advertise, where he develops a highly successful advertising campaign for the cigarettes Whifflets. This also reflects Sayers’s own successful career as a copywriter from 1922 to 1931. She is actually credited with coining the phrase “It pays to advertise.” So these jingles of Wimsy are suited to the connection with advertising in the author’s life.

Ian Carmichael performs the audio version of this book, and I can’t imagine a better voice to perform it. He is especially known for having played Lord Peter Wimsy in the 1970s’ series of Wimsy books. In such cases, listeners are often predisposed by their enjoyment of the show and the actor in the role to view the narrative in a positive light. However, I first listened to this book long before I ever saw the DVDs of the BBC show. Carmichael voices all the roles convincingly, with realistic panache. My one problem with the recording is that I found myself changing the volume somewhat frequently. I didn’t notice an obvious change in volume of the recording, but I did have to turn the volume up or down.

I enjoy Clouds of Witness, but it seems to me to run cold, then hot, and then cold before a short period of excitement at the very end. The long speeches grow tiresome, but when the book turns to Lord Peter, it shows real delight for the readers. We appreciate the witticisms of Wimsy, as the book has regular moments of humor. The irony that appears throughout the book just adds to the quality of writing. I give this book four stars.

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