Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club”

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The Unpleasantness at the Bellona ClubIn The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey faces a most unusual case. It is Armistice Day (November 11, celebrating the end of World War I), and the members of the Bellona Club joke about how General Fentimen enters the club in the morning and doesn’t leave his chair until night. They tease that he could be dead for two days before anyone would notice when suddenly they realize that the general is indeed dead. In fact, rigor mortis has not only set in, but it is starting to wear off. The exception is that his leg is loose, but they ignore that detail for the time being.

Then a couple days later, Lord Peter gets approached about a unique problem by his solicitor friend, Mr. Murbles. The day before his death, General Fentimen got news that his outcast sister was on her deathbed. Assuming that he outlives his sister, he will inherit a sizable fortune. If he were to die first, then a distant artist relative of hers, Ann Dorland, would get the half a million pounds. Thus, it becomes crucial to determine at exactly what time General Fentimen died, so they can decide whether his grandsons, who desperately need the money, will inherit or whether the money will go to Miss Dorland. Murbles gets Lord Peter to investigate, and the case proves both difficult and with extra complexities.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is an excellent example of early Sayers’s writing, focusing more on the plot than the individual characters. The mystery plot has a unique angle, with the question of determining the time of death. We do get to see three old friends, Lord Peter, Bunter, and Charles Parker. Bunter is a creative and clever butler, eager at the same time to make sure that Lord Peter never leaves the house improperly attired and to take fingerprints and photographs. Parker, Wimsey’s closest friend and a detective from Scotland Yard, serves as a good partner for Wimsey, acting as the pragmatist to Lord Peter’s idealism.

This book further details life in 1928 that gives us an interesting angle on the era. As an example, we contemporary readers learn about gentleman’s clubs of the past, where men of higher class paid regular dues to go there to relax, make connections with similar men, and avoid the “wrong sort” of men as well as all women. These clubs were especially popular in Britain and offered bars, usually a meal, and even sometimes lodging. It is one such club where the body of the general is discovered.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club further reveals issues of the Great War that still lingered at the 10th anniversary of the conclusion of the war, when the body is discovered. We see the two minutes of silence at 11:00 that marked the cease-fire (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918) and the popular practice of wearing poppies to commemorate the war. The poppies became a symbol of death from this war, later generalized to all wars, in the famous 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Colonel John McCrae. The poem refers to the poppies that grew upon the graves of the newly dead, and on November 11, Remembrance Day, people in Britain still buy the “blood-red” poppies to commemorate those who spilled their blood for their country.

The book also shows attitudes towards the Great War and residual effects of the war even 10 years later. The “old guard,” who served in a very different style of military before the horrors of the Great War, are very focused upon honor and still see war as an honourable thing. Among the old guard, death in war was inevitable, and while sad, was a necessary loss. We see one older gentleman lament the fact that the public telephone was out at the Remembrance because he wanted to call someone whose son was killed in the minutes prior to the cessation of fighting. To us, it seems such a waste, especially since it was established that everyone would fight until 11:00, but to the old guard, that is just part of war. Colonel Marshbanks even laments that the war has ruined the moral quality of the younger generation, completely ignoring all that those men suffered for four straight years.

However, those younger men forced to fight in this terrible war have a very different perspective on war. They endured evils that no man or woman should ever have to face, and they were shot, to the approval of the higher up brass who didn’t have to face such things, at the slightest hint of cowardice.

One of the saddest things to come out of this war was the degree of shell-shock, which only in recent years has been recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. From the first appearance of Lord Peter Wimsey in Whose Body?, we see the fact that he has a serious history with shell-shock, when he wakes up Bunter, who had been his bat-man (soldier servant) during the war, where Lord Peter served as major, and complains about the enemy nearby. He doesn’t recognize reality. In the same way, Captain George Fentimen has been damaged by shell- shock, being unable to hold a job and having episodes of acting irrationally without any knowledge of his actions when he comes to himself. Such victims of the war were also further victimized by the old guard who saw them as cowards to react in such a way.

A final lifestyle I’ll address today shown in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is the artists’ enclaves that sprang up in the years between the wars. We see that Ann Dorland tries to practice art and live the artists’ bohemian lifestyle without much success. Lord Peter’s friend, Marjorie Phelps, on the other hand, is very successful in making miniature sculptures that sell well. She casually talks about considering iving with a man, her only objection’s being that she has discovered that three previous women tried and couldn’t put up with him. She does not express concern over the fact that social mores of the day would be scandalized by a couple’s living together (something we see in the next book, Strong Poison) or the fact that he has had three mistresses. Rather, she is concerned about the way the women are treated, an issue that we also see in Strong Poison not to matter as much to society as the respectability of the institution of marriage.

Unfortunately, I can find no digital unabridged version of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, either on CD or MP3, so I had to resort to listening to the cassette recording from before books were common on CD. At least if I had to go to such trouble, I was able to enjoy the stellar performance of Ian Carmichael, who embodied Wimsey to me through these recordings long before I ever saw a version of him as Lord Peter in the 1970s’ BBC series. Carmichael makes the books feel all the livelier and more fun in the way Lord Peter doesn’t take himself too seriously. I relish getting to hear Carmichael in these recordings, which more than make up for having to resort to cassette tapes!

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club contains a fascinating plot, with an interesting premise and a creative mystery. It has some curious twists and angles that make it well- written and plotted out. We get some real surprises throughout, just as we think the book is wrapping up. I give this book five stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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