“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” – Hebrews 12: 1
“Clouds of Witness” (Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1926 follow-up to “Whose Body?”) finds Lord Peter Wimsey attaining new depths of character. In fact, too many depths. He has so many depths he’s practically composed of holes. Let’s have Sayers describe this monster of a genius who, a mere book ago, was a foppish, idle Wodehousian figure:
“To Lord Peter the world presented itself as an entertaining labyrinth of side-issues. He was 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. He had been seen at half-past twelve on a Sunday morning walking in Hyde Park in a top-hat and frock-coat, reading the News of the World. His passion for the unexplored led him to hunt up obscure pamphlets in the British Museum, to unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors, and to find out where his own drains led to.”
In short, he’s suited to deal with anything the plot may throw at him. This time around, crime comes close to home: Peter’s prospective brother-in-law is found dead on the lawn of Wimsey manor. The main suspects are Peter’s not-that-bereaved little sister, May; and Peter’s older, more consciously aristocratic brother, the Duke of Denver. It’s up to Peter to clear the family name, which of course he will do because there’s no way a DUKE could be the bad guy.
“Clouds of Witness” is a marked improvement over the debut; Peter now has a family and a more logical station within his upper crust milieu. Sayers treats her aristocracy in a too-gentle satirical manner: at least in this novel, there’s never any actual danger that a proper well-bred member of the British nobility could condescend to something as emotional as murder – not while there’s dubious Socialist-sympathizers and Francophiles in the cast list.
(It should be noted that the mystery’s solution breaks one of S. S. Van Dine’s 20 Classic Rules for Writing Detective Stories and is thus potentially disappointing. I keep liking the dialogue in these novels more than I like the rather commonplace intrigues, but the trial scene is very good.)
“Clouds of Witness” was one of the books defaced at the Islington Public Library by English playwright and provocateur Joe Orton in the early 1960s. The guerilla-art-prank involved altering covers and jackets of dozens of library books so as to shock the unwitting patrons. Orton did some time for his crime. The squares just didn’t get it, man!
(Of course, now that the dude is safely dead, the defaced books are proudly displayed in a gallery of the library. And so it goes.)
I couldn’t resist adding the “Clouds of Witness” defacement.