Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clouds Of Witness – Dorothy L. Sayers

It’s a rainy Sunday morning and what I should be doing is brushing up on my knowledge of distilled spirits ahead of an exam in a couple of weeks (as well as actually learning about some of the more arcane elements of cocktail making – Sunday morning however just doesn't feel like the right time for this kind of thing). Instead I'm almost entirely focused on Dorothy L. Sayers still, with a very small part of my concentration reserved for the possibility of a-nice-cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit; proper Sunday activity I'm sure you’ll agree.

When I read Jill Paton-Walsh’s ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ I thought I wanted more Peter and Harriet because those were the books I enjoyed most and consistently re read through my teens and onwards (reading back through Elaine Random Jottings post on ‘The Attenbury Emeralds’ from last year I see that this is a pretty common theme). What I actually wanted was more Sayers, looking at the books on my shelf I see that there are half a dozen that are falling apart with use and rather more that look suspiciously unmolested so I hauled out ‘Clouds of Witness’ in a fairly arbitrary manner and started reading. I couldn’t stop reading (and not just because I’m not interested enough in being able to identify bar tenders kit).

The thing with Sayers is that she leaves you in no doubt as to her academic credentials and proclivities – she will throw in quotations and longish chunks in French without either explanation or excuse. I imagine that she saw her audience as women like herself or like the provincial lady (and after all, who else would her audience have been but the educated middle class and middlebrow?) when I was much younger it made me want to learn more, now it makes me grateful for Google. The relationship between Harriet and Peter was fairytale enough to appeal to me in my teens; I think I was too young for the rest of the series.

I appreciated the silly rhymes, the slang, and indeed all Lord Peter’s affectations. I liked the aspirational element of the books as well – soft carpets, silks and velvets, Russian leather, crepe de chine underwear and fine wines (though one mention of Chateau d’Yquem has sent me off on a little research mission of my own to see if Sayers actually understood what she was talking about or not – I really can’t help myself) but mystery aside a lot in the rest of the books was over my head. This time round I enjoyed the whole of ‘Clouds of Witness’ in a way I was incapable of twenty plus years ago – for good and bad; the affectations are no longer as amusing but the inter war world is far more fascinating. The huge bonus here is that instead of pinning unrealistic expectations on a new book by a different author I have a sizable chunk of actual Sayers that I can work my way through to all intents and purposes for the first time.

Plot wise it’s a dead body in a country house with the likely culprits being the sleuths brother or sister which leads to an investigation that dashes from Yorkshire to London then Paris and New York in a very unlikely (but entertaining manner). I think the final courtroom scenes are the best – brother’s life hanging in the balance as we wait for Peter to fly back across the Atlantic with something vital to the case - all in the teeth of a rising storm (it’s 1924 – I think) so this is quite an undertaking and Sayers really builds the tension beautifully. Having her policeman buy a camisole for his elder sister in Paris has a touch of comic brilliance about it, and for menace there is Lord Peter putting pressure on a witness to come forward knowing quite well that if she does her husband will probably kill her (I don’t think that scene would really have sunk in first read round for me) which makes the nervous breakdowns at the end of each case feel far more inevitable.


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  2. I also discovered Dorothy L. Sayers & Lord Peter through the TV adaptations, back when they were on PBS' Mystery, and Clouds of Witness was the first I saw, so I have a special fondness for it. Since Lord Peter was my first serious literary crush, I avoided the Harriet books for years (depriving myself of Gaudy Night). I haven't read any of Jill Paton Walsh's sequels, though I enjoy her mystery series set in Cambridge. I wish she would write more of those and leave poor Lord Peter alone. I'll look forward to hearing more about your re-reading.

  3. Lisa May - thank you so much for persisting with efforts to comment. Gaudy Night was my first, re reading now is a treat and I'm looking out for J P-W's other books.