Even the Bellona Club’s most devoted members would never call it lively. Its atmosphere is that of a morgue—or, at best, a funeral parlor—and on Armistice Day the gloom is only heightened. Veterans of the Great War gather at the Bellona not to hash over old victories, but to stare into their whiskies and complain about old injuries, shrinking pensions, and the lingering effects of shell shock. Though he acts jolly, Lord Peter Wimsey finds the holiday grim. And this Armistice Day, death has come to join the festivities.
The aged General Fentiman—a hero of the Crimean War—expires sitting up in his favorite chair. Across town, his sister dies on the same day, throwing the General’s half-million-pound inheritance into turmoil. As the nation celebrates and suspicions run riot, Lord Peter must discover what kind of soldier would have the nerve to murder a general.
This is the book I was waiting to get to in my big reread of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories. While it has been years since I had last read the book, I remember it really clearly because the excellent 1970s television adaptation with Ian Carmichael was one of the very first televised mystery stories I ever watched. Even though the production values are rather dated, I still regularly rewatch it out of a mixture of appreciation for the performances and nostalgia for that first viewing.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the story is its hook – the way Lord Peter becomes involved in the case. The book opens at the Armistace Day commemorations at the rather crusty Bellona Club. During the celebrations General Fentiman is found dead sat in an armchair having apparently expired some hours earlier.
It turns out that on the same day General Fentiman died his much wealthier sister also passed away. Though the pair were somewhat estranged, she had made arrangements in her will that if he survived her that he would inherit the bulk of her estate. That would then pass down to his heirs. If she survived him then they would get a much smaller amount with the bulk passing to her niece. Lord Peter, who was at the club when the body was discovered, is asked by the General’s solicitor if he could make some discrete enquiries at the club to try and work out the precise time of death.
I would have been around ten or eleven when I first saw that TV adaptation so I saw this at a very early point in my journey to become a mysteries fan. This was the very first time I realized that a mystery story could ask a question other than whodunit – in this case, asking when a death occurred. While timing can certainly be a really important factor in a mystery, the idea of using it as the starting point for a story is far more impressive and while the story does expand to incorporate some more traditional elements, Sayers does an excellent job of sustaining interest in this initial question and also explaining the legal issue in an accessible way.
Compared to the three previous Wimsey novels this is a far more complex and intricately constructed story. Sayers structures her story around several relatively simple problems, each of which has a binary resolution. For instance, either the General died first or his sister did, either a character knew something or they did not and so on. The complexity comes from the need to piece each of those little questions together and seeing how what we learn impacts on our understanding of that bigger picture.
The solution is not particularly complex but I find it to be quite satisfying. I love that the reader is able to go back and see how crucial information has been layered into the story and, particularly, how the other characters are responding to the developments in the case or their perceptions of them. I think the explanation for what has happened, when given, is clever and makes a good deal of sense.
The other element of this story that really stands out to me is its discussion of the impact that the Great War had on a generation of young men. This is first addressed in its discussion of the Armistace Day commemoration and the different attitudes held by those marking the event. For the General and his professional soldier son, the commemorations are a celebration whereas for Lord Peter and George Fentiman, who was badly gassed in the war and suffers from shellshock, it is something to be endured – a reminder of a recent trauma they have not yet been able to resolve.
We have previously seen Sayers touch on the horrors of that war in one of the most striking sequences in the first Lord Peter novel, Whose Body?, but that sequence really exists to illustrate an aspect of his character. Here Sayers touches on the broader experiences of a generation, most of whom did not have Lord Peter’s personal resources and would need to try to hold down a job and support a family. George’s attitudes and stubborn rejections of any help offered can be frustrating but I find them completely understandable and I consider both him and his family to be really thoughtfuly characterized throughout the novel.
In several of my previous reviews of this series I noted that Lord Peter himself can be rather difficult to like because of his frustrating habit to be flippant and speak in a string of witty remarks. Sayers seemed to tone this down as the series went on and I think that trend continued with this novel. He still is more than capable of offering up a bon mot but that seems to be less the focus than the fact he cares for George and, most important of all, discovering the truth and securing justice. This is the version of the character I like best because I think the character is at his most appealing when he is fighting for someone rather than simply pursuing a hobby.
So, what are the problems with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club? I can’t find many. The only one I can offer up falls heavily into spoiler territory, relating to an aspect of the resolution of the story. Personally I believe that moment is consistent with everything that Sayers has established about everyone involved in that moment but I can understand why it might leave some readers cold.
ROT-13 (Really do not read this unless you have read the book): V unir ab qvssvphygl va oryvrivat gung gur qbpgbe, n sbezre zvyvgnel zna, jbhyq erpbtavmr gung ur unq orra genccrq naq jbhyq evfx gur qvfubabe bs gjb jbzra vs gur znggre unq gb or chefhrq va pbheg. Guvf vqrn gung qrngu vf n pbagnzvanag gung jvyy qrfgebl gur yvirf bs gubfr jub ner oebhtug vagb pbagnpg jvgu vg ehaf guebhtubhg guvf obbx naq vf pyrneyl ersyrpgrq va gur gvgyr naq qvnybt va gur fgbel jurer punenpgref pnaabg oevat gurzfryirf gb ersre gb n qrngu – vg vf fvzcyl na hacyrnfnag rirag.
Juvyr gur ynpx bs na neerfg znl srry yvxr n ynpx bs n erfbyhgvba, V guvax vs lbh pbafvqre gur bgure punenpgref vaibyirq va gur fgbel nyy bs gurz jbhyq cersre gung gur znggre tb ab shegure. V guvax vg vf bayl gur ernqre jub znl cbgragvnyyl jnag n fgebatre erfcbafr gb gur pevzr va fhpu n fvghngvba.
Nqq va gung lbh trg nyyhfvbaf gb gur vqrn gung gur gjb fvqrf bs gur snzvyl jvyy riraghnyyl or wbvarq gbtrgure naq lbh qb unir n frggvat bs gur jbeyq gb evtugf, rira vs gur zrnaf fvgf bhgfvqr gur sbezny yrtny cebprff.
Given the importance that this book has for me as part of my journey to becoming a fan of the genre I was anticipating rereading it and I am happy to say that it more than lives up to those memories. In my opinion it is the richest and most interesting of Sayers’ works up until this point and well worth your time if you have never read it before.
The Verdict: One of my favorite Sayers titles. This is a cleverly structured mystery with some powerful discussion about the effects the Great War was still having on those who had served a decade later.