There was a point about two-thirds of the way into Clouds of Witness where I wondered to myself why I hadn’t rated it more highly when I first read it. You see, while I have fond memories of the Lord Peter stories from my early forays into detective fiction I have very little memory of the first few stories.
The setup is rather promising as Lord Peter, upon returning from a trip to Sicily, learns that his brother has been arrested and is set to be tried for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. After quickly gathering some details from a newspaper account, he returns to the family home to poke around with the help of his detective friend Inspector Parker.
Lord Peter’s brother claims that he had confronted Cathcart earlier in the evening about an accusation of cheating at cards. He expects Cathcart to defend himself but instead he walks out saying that he was calling the engagement off anyway. After a restless evening he took a walk and on returning to the house stumbled over the body. He refuses to give any kind of alibi while the sister has locked herself away in her room. Lord Peter will have to save a man who is doing nothing to save himself with little help from his family.
The early part of the story showcase Peter’s methodical approach as they track footprints, follow trails and identify clues around the household. This process is not flashy and there are few surprises with much of their work simply confirming observations already made but I do think Sayers effectively communicates the pressure of needing to find something to clear the brother’s name.
These chapters also provide some much-needed context for Lord Peter, giving the reader a greater sense of who he is and what forces have molded him. I commented in my review of the first novel that the character struck me as flippant and frustrating and while those attributes still exist in this second outing, the character seems softened by comparison with his brother Gerald and their mother not to mention some of the others from their social set.
Sayers also makes some interesting choices in some of the settings she chooses to place him into in the course of this adventure, using the contrast or absurdity of a situation to draw out different parts of his character. A trip to a socialist club for instance not only gives a glimpse into some of Peter’s social and political views, it also fleshes out his relationship with another character and provides some interesting plot developments. He can certainly still be annoying, evasive and appear snobbish but there were more moments in this story where I actually liked him which feels like a step in the right direction.
I mentioned that I felt that the mystery had a promising beginning and I do think that the story touches on some interesting ideas about honor and social values that make it a surprisingly rich read. The problem is that it never takes the material in an unexpected direction.
An example of the sort of thing I am talking about relates to the question of Gerald’s lack of an alibi. There is an obvious explanation that the reader is likely to immediately think of and, what’s more, that Lord Peter considers for a moment in an abstract sense but he never tries applying that idea to the situation. He ought to at least suspect what that explanation may be and yet he seems utterly surprised when the idea suddenly occurs later in the story. There are plenty of other examples.
There is a frustrating disconnect between Lord Peter’s imagination on small details such as the possible meanings of fragments of a letter and his ability to see the bigger picture. If this were rooted in a character issue like his closeness to the investigation then that may have been more understandable but instead it feels like a convenient way to try to slow a story down.
The eventual explanation for what happened on the night of Cathcart’s death is completely underwhelming after chapters of careful investigation and speculation. Too much of the resolution is delivered to Lord Peter rather than proved by his stitching together clues to form a convincing narrative, feeling like a missed opportunity. While there are some very exciting and dramatic moments around the case, those hoping for a solid puzzle to unravel may feel underwhelmed by how little there is ultimately to discover.
There is no denying however that the ending is delivered with some style and while I could get frustrated at pages of solid French writing (translated shortly afterwards into English), I think the effect works nicely to give the sense of a much wider world beyond the events shown here. There is a rather charming and unexpected coda which not only places a fun cap on this story but also goes some way towards showing us Lord Peter and Parkers’ respective personalities.
There are some entertaining adventure sequences throughout the novel with a highlight involving a careless fall that puts Lord Peter’s life in jeopardy. I thought Sayers’ writing clear and easy to follow while the tension of the situation is brilliantly conveyed. I similarly appreciated a very brave action that Lord Peter takes towards the end of the novel which speaks to the character’s sense of dedication and commitment to grow.
For all of its faults, Clouds of Witness is a more entertaining and interesting work than its predecessor. Sayers’ mystery lacks a punchy or unexpected resolution but there are some entertaining action sequences built around it and some nice character moments for Lord Peter. I look forward to reading the next story, Unnatural Death, which is another one I barely remember but which I hope will prove a more complete and challenging work.