I was introduced to the works of Dorothy Sayers by my mother when I was in my teens and have been enamored by Lord Peter Wimsey ever since. In fact, I named three of my cats Lord Peter (now gone to cat heaven), Harriet Vane, and Mr. Bunter. Harriet and Bunter are now in their late teens, but still active.
After the recent election, a friend remarked that we needed to escape for the duration or, at least, periodically to help us ignore the horrors of the new administration. For some reason I thought of reading Sayers. Looking at my bookshelf, “Clouds of Witness” jumped out at me. “Clouds of Witness”, set in 1926, is the second of the thirteen Wimsey novels and contains most of the important continuing figures: Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Parker, Freddy Arbuthnot, Peter’s mother, sister, brother, and sister-in-law. He has yet to meet Harriet Vane. (That happens in “Strong Poison.)
“Clouds of Witness” is an English Country House mystery – with a twist. The house is not isolated and the occupants are not snowed in, trapped by a flood, or other natural disaster. The action takes place at a country shooting party hosted by Lord Peter’s brother, the Duke of Denver. Of course, one of the guests is murdered under mysterious circumstances. There are too many witnesses with conflicting stories and at cross-purposes. It takes Parker and Lord Peter, with the help of Bunter, several trips to France, an Atlantic crossing to New York by boat and back in a small plane in bad weather to exonerate the Duke.
I hadn’t read the book for a number of years, but it remains my favorite of Sayers early works. She is still developing Wimsey, but you can see glimpses of the character he becomes. His “man”, Bunter, is already competent beyond competent at almost everything to which he puts his hand. You can see the beginning of the relationship between Parker and Wimsey – and between Parker and Wimsey’s sister, Mary.
Having enjoyed my re-reading, I decided to watch the 1972 production that had been on the BBC and on Masterpiece Mystery. I found it pretty faithful to the book until the ending. Why does television always have to pretty up the ending? I have to say that one of the wonderful parts of the book is the trial of the Duke in front of the House of Lords, the jury of his peers. Sayers’ history of such trials along with her descriptions of the preparation and of the trial itself are a wonderful piece of writing and the video does manage to capture much of it visually.
If you are looking for some enjoyable distraction from reality you could do much worse that reading Dorothy Sayers. In fact, I think I’ll pick another to read next.
Photograph by Robert Wyckoff.