Clouds of Witness is the second Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. It was first published in 1926. It is also the second novel that I have read in the series. Once again, I am pleased by the effort and absolutely love the main character.
There is a whole lot that appeals to me in this novel, much of it the same as with the first novel. I continually see similarities between Whimsey and myself. He and I have that 100-mph mannerism that just can make the most boring story (a murder at a lodge on the moors) an exciting and interesting caper. And Bunter – dear, wonderful Bunter – is once again the epitome of perfect manservant.
The other characters in the novel are interesting as well. The reader is allowed to come onto this property on the moors and associate with several members of the Whimsey family. We get to know a lot more about Peter’s sister, Mary, and their brother Gerald. Gerald, by the way, is the accused in this murder mystery! We also learn that Gerald is not as droll as we had originally thought!
In this novel, Sayers both supports and mocks the peerage. There are discussions on “the working man” versus the gentry. We hear from a variety of people regarding this manner and are witness to the spectacle that comes from accusing the Duke of Denver of murder. Sayers pokes fun at the pomp and circumstance and yet also shows an astute respect and caring toward the lordships. It is definitely a novel that readers fond of Great Britain’s “houses” won’t mind reading.
Sayers’ ability to manage the characters and plot while also turning a phrase, providing misdirections, and giving subtle and witty amusements is impressive. It is one thing to write a good story, it is quite another to write one that also has little asides of humor and show brilliant wit. There are several sections wherein I had to visibly grin while reading because it was so skillfully written.
Some people might find Lord Peter to be a bit unfocused or random. They may even think he is unable to be serious – he often seems to derail, interrupt, or wonder aloud. I know this frustrates people – because I tend to feel that frustration levied toward myself more often than not. Like Peter, though, I have a loyal group of friends that join me on all of my adventures. Peter’s biggest help in this novel (besides the indefatigable Bunter) is Charles Parker. Parker and Whimsey begin by combing the grounds of the property looking for clues:
“Serve him glad,” said Lord peter viciously, straightening his back. “I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business. If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.” pg. 48, Chapter 3
I know that in this series, Lord Peter is supposed to “age naturally,” meaning, I think, that he doesn’t stay the same age for five novels and have 85 cases to solve per year. Nevertheless, I have been unable to imagine him as more than in his late 30s. I know there have been some TV episodes, but I feel their portrayal is too elderly. I don’t care what the chronology looks like – Peter is so youthful and energetic, he cannot be played by some grey-haired actor.
Doing more sleuthing, Whimsey is retelling part of the story to Parker, and Peter interrupts himself to ask Parker if he knows how to spell ipecacuanha. Parker does:
“Damn you!” said Lord Peter. “I did think I’d stumped you that time. I believe you went and looked it up beforehand. No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head.” pg. 103, Chapter 6
It really is not a stretch to hear myself saying those lines. In Chapter 4, there is a small interchange between Peter and Bunter regarding Bunter’s mother – and it is priceless and amusing! Whimsey surprised to learn that Bunter has one! Nevertheless, though Peter surely aggravates the heck out of his friends, Chapter 12 demonstrates the loyalty and love his friends and family have for him. And, honestly, even in dire circumstances, Peter still is sarcastic and obnoxious. But in an almost self-effacing manner. Whew! Scary moments in that chapter! I am not any more endeared to moors having read this chapter.
With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) the vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) first love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) the aftermath of the Great War; (6) birth-control; and (7) the fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however.
Our plucky hero picks up his spirits and trudges onward across this miserable moor. I confess I probably have had my share of moments wherein I have paused in some mundane task to consider these kosmically heavy concepts.
The resolution for the mystery is given in the end chapters of the book during the court case. Part of the storyline of this novel is that this trial involves a Duke. So, of course, Sayers wants to show us the rigamarole of the court case involving the gentry. I am just not a fan of courtroom dramas/stories/mysteries, etc. Make no mistake: these chapters are exceedingly well-written and are actually very entertaining. I am just not a reader with patience for such things.