21.9.10

Dorothy L. Sayers's Clouds of Witness


In Dorothy L. Sayers's Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with one of the most difficult tasks in his career as amateur detective. He must refute murder charges against his brother, a man who refuses to provide an alibi for himself. If that isn’t hard enough, Wimsey must also investigate his sister’s suspicious behaviour during and after the murder. This sister, who was engaged to the murder victim, presents conflicting testimony at the initial inquest. Wimsey does not shy away from the difficulties of investigating family members. He tells his Scotland Yard side-kick, Charles Parker, “The best we can do is to look the evidence in the face, however ugly. And I don’t mind admittin’ that some of it’s a positive gargoyle” (116).

As noted in my post on Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, the character of Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the chief attractions of this amateur detective series. Wimsey, we are told, is “a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist” (89). He possesses wealth, a title, and an Oxford education, but is not content to lead a life of leisure. Always bursting into places, Wimsey welcomes challenges wholeheartedly. His zest for life, love of adventure, and curiosity about the world are simply contagious. Wimsey's ingenious walking stick – “marked off in inches for detective convenience, and concealing a sword in its belly and a compass in its head” – is emblematic of his aristocrat-turned-detective role (176).

The purpose that Wimsey finds in life is the result of a hard-won battle with post-war trauma. After his nervous breakdown (as we are told in a postscript to the novel “written” by Wimsey’s uncle), Wimsey turned to detective work as a way of regaining meaning in life. It was not a decision taken lightly; “at the end of every case he had the old nightmares and shell-shock over again.”

Written in 1926, Clouds of Witness is set in a cozy English village. It is a charming, old-fashioned world, but one affected by the Great War. Sayers is particularly skilled at evoking this world. Her recipe for mysteries, claims The Times, is “deftly to mix a plot that kept readers guessing with inside information, told without tears, about some fascinating subject – campanology, the backrooms of an advertising agency, life behind the discreet windows of a West End club” (1957).

The use of firsthand evidence in the form of floor plans, letters, and inquest testimony lends the novel an air of plausibility. The narrative concludes with a dramatic trial in the House of Lords, a trial filled with suspense and surprise.

Sayers begins each chapter with a fitting epigraph, showing readers that the worlds of Othello, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Pilgrim’s Progress and other literary works are not very far removed from the detective novel. “To her admirers,” P. D. James points out, “she is the writer who did more than any other to make the detective story intellectually respectable” (2009, 105).

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

“Miss Dorothy L. Sayers: Christian Apologist and Novelist.” The Times. December 19, 1957.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Clouds of Witness. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1926.