Saturday, January 18, 2014

Meeting Lord Peter Wimsey

I adored Clouds of Witness, my first meeting with Lord Peter Wimsey, the noble detective created by Dorothy L Sayers. It's brimming with rich and funny characters, outlandish plotting and sudden, witty asides.

I complained of Poirot that we know next to nothing about him except that he's a Belgian detective. Here, Wimsey's client is his own brother, in the frame for murder. We also meet Wimsey's sister and mother, and Gerald's wife and friends. The comic archetypes - all posh knobs in country houses and amusing, coarse yokels - are the same as in Christie (and Wodehouse), but there's more emotional effect when they're direct relations to our hero. As so often in a murder mystery, everyone has a secret - but since the suspects are his own flesh and blood, does Wimsey really want to find out?

For all the jolly adventure and jokes, Wimsey is also a damaged individual - the result of both being jilted and some awful experience in the war. Again, this helps ground him and the fun of solving the murder in reality, so that it matters more.

But largely, it's all lots of fun. There's a magnificent sequence of tracking footprints through a wood and slowly deducing who left them (at one point, he must be both a midget and a giant). There's a brilliant last act with the trial taking place amid the pomp and finery of the House of Lords. I loved the detail about a "tedious series of witnesses" on financial affairs:
"the noble lords began to yawn, with the exception of a few of the soap and pickles lords, who suddenly started to make computations in their note-books, and exchanged looks of intelligence".
Dorothy L Sayers, Clouds of Witness (1926, revised 1935), p. 173.
At the end, Wimsey makes a desperate dash across the Atlantic to extract the last, telling clue to untangle the whole mess. It's well handled, though there's a sense at the same time that we're meant to celebrate the fact that a sexual affair is kept secret. More than that, the ultimate solution all hinges on a dreadful contrivance, as the defence has to admit.
"I have used the word 'incredible' - not because any coincidence is incredible, for we see more remarkable examples every day of our lives than any writer of fiction would dare to invent - but merely to take it out of the mouth of the learned Attorney-General, who is preparing to make it return, boomerang-fashion, against  me. (Laughter.)"
Ibid., p. 191.
Despite these slight misgivings, this is a joy of a book. I can't wait to read more Wimsey. 

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