The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase

The Blurb

In the scenic Scottish village of Kirkcudbright, no one is disliked more than Sandy Campbell. When the painter is found dead at the foot of cliff, his easel standing above, no one is sorry to see him gone—especially six members of the close knit Galloway artists’ colony.

The inimitable Lord Peter Wimsey is on the scene to determine the truth about Campbell’s death. Piecing together the evidence, the aristocratic sleuth discovers that of the six suspected painters, five are red herrings, innocent of the crime. But just which one is the ingenious artist with a talent for murder?

The Verdict

The core ideas of the mystery are interesting but I found the telling of it tedious and drawn out.

I say – I don’t mind betting this is the most popular thing Campbell ever did. Nothing in life became him like the leaving it, eh, what?

My Thoughts

For years I have held that The Five Red Herrings is one of the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. In fact I can clearly recall doing just that over drinks one evening with a fellow mystery fan during my university days at the student union bar. Having revisited it for the first time in twenty years I feel the need to apologize to that friend if they happened to follow my advice – I don’t know what I was thinking either.

The novel takes place in a Scottish village where a colony of artists reside. Lord Peter happens to be holidaying nearby and so gets to know several of the key figures prior to the case beginning including the victim, a quarrelsome artist by the name of Sandy Campbell. In fact he even was involved in one altercation shortly before Campbell is found dead having apparently slipped in a tragic accident while painting.

Lord Peter quickly notes that the death, while appearing accidental, must almost certainly have been murder. After proving his point he lends a hand with the investigation, looking into the six fellow painters who he considers the most likely culprits.

I found the opening chapters of the novel to offer some points of promise, not least the chapter in which Lord Peter sets about proving that murder was done after all. This is done quite simply and it even involves a fun challenge to the reader in which the narrator tells us that they won’t identify what Lord Peter thinks is wrong with the crime scene immediately as we should be able to guess it for ourselves. They’re right, of course, and the answer is pretty persuasive.

I also think Sayers does a pretty good job of setting up Campbell to be a deserving corpse. It is pretty clear from the moment he first appears why anyone in the village might want to kill him and I appreciate that Sayers offers up some variety among those six suspects, each of whom has experienced a different point of tension with him. The line I quote above from Lord Peter feels decidedly apt.

Most of my problems begin however with the investigation proper. It is, in short, tedious. I know that people love to deride Freeman Wills Crofts as a timetable plotter but this book includes multiple, incredibly dry and detailed timetables. Those who love to painstakingly chart the movements of multiple bicycles and keep track of different train routes may love this – I was just losing my patience.

There is a bit of a brief respite from this when we get a passage narrated by Bunter about his own investigations that Wimsey suggests ‘would do credit to The Castle of Otranto‘ – perhaps overstated but nonetheless I found it to be quite a welcome change. Unfortunately we are soon back to the grind.

And it is a grind. For instance, the chapter titled Farren’s Story contains a page-long paragraph. I made a note in my Kindle edition that this was ‘Too much text’ and I stand by that. Those sorts of long, dense passages often seem to do little to move the plot forward and instead just seem to stretch the story out more and more, as do the several explanations of the crime that are offered prior to Wimsey’s own.

That is not to say that there are not some bright spots. This book contains a number of references to other Golden Age crime novels such as Crofts’ Sir John Magill’s Last Journey and various other works that Sayers clearly felt were of note, many of which might now be considered obscure. Unfortunately there does seem to be a spoiler for Connington’s The Two Tickets Puzzle, though the information given may be less crucial than it seemed here (I own that title but have yet to read it).

I also think that there are a few nice character moments for Wimsey and I did enjoy the material with Bunter, limited though it was. Sadly they couldn’t overcome my complaints about the pace that the mystery unfolded at.

This is a shame because I think that the story isn’t, in itself, a bad one. In fact one of the reasons that this post is coming to you later than planned was that I wanted to listen to the radio adaptation again which was the most recent way I had most recently consumed it. I was pleased to find that it was much closer to my memories of the piece and also a little tighter as well. Perhaps it helps too that I often prefer the softer, more jovial Ian Carmichael rendering of Wimsey to the character I imagine coming from the page. If memory serves (and clearly, mine is questionable), the TV adaptation was pretty decent too.

All in all, I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy my experience revisiting this one and do not anticipate doing so again any time soon. At least, not as the novel. Thankfully the next novel in the series brings back Harriet Vane so hopefully I will find more to like there. I may wait another few months though before settling down to read it…

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Lord Peter Wimsey #6
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by The Five Red Herrings

The Blurb

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love.
 
As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.

The Verdict

This successfully introduced some elements that would benefit later stories. Unfortunately the case feels padded, unremarkable and overrated.


My Thoughts

Revisiting the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in order has been quite instructive for me as I have come to appreciate the evolution of the character. In my review of his first adventure, Whose Body?, I noted that while the affectations and core personality traits were all basically there, the character often read as flippant and tiresome. Those traits were gradually toned down in the subsequent stories as it was made clearer that this personality has been, at least to some extent, cultivated to make him appear less threatening.

The previous story in the series, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, had presented readers with a more sharply defined and sympathetic version of the character. While he was still capable of flippant witticisms, there we saw him act out of care for another, fighting on their behalf rather than just engaging in criminology as a hobby. This book takes that idea one step further, seeing him become involved to save a young woman he has fallen in love with from the gallows.

That character is, of course, the mystery novelist Harriet Vane who will go on in subsequent novels to become his partner in detection. This change significantly alters the tone and themes of the series in those books but that of course will be a discussion for later reviews. Here she plays only a limited role, briefly appearing in just a couple of chapters and to provide inspiration for Lord Peter’s efforts to uncover the truth.

The reason for this is that at the start of the novel Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of having poisoned her former lover, the novelist Philip Boyes, using arsenic. Her supposed motive is that she had agreed to live with him without being married having been convinced of his opposition to the institution, only for him to subsequently offer her marriage after all. She clearly felt angry and betrayed, leaving him.

The problem for Harriet is that she had been identified buying arsenic, apparently to test to see how easily it could be procured for a future novel and no one else seems to have a clear motive. Lord Peter refuses to believe her guilty, not based on any evidence but based on his instinct and strength of feeling about her and tells her that he will work on her behalf to find evidence to acquit her, telling her that he wants to marry her when it is all over.

This initial point of attraction is, for me, the weakest part of the story as I think Peter’s attraction to her has to be quite superficial. I think it could be fairly categorized as an example of the love at first sight trope as he wants to marry her before he has ever spoken with her himself. Sayers even seems to draw a parallel between Peter and other men, noting that Harriet has already received a number of other offers of marriage since being arrested. Still, I think the reader can infer reasons for that attraction based on his perception of her character and smartly the author does not give us the gratification of a quick acceptance of his affections.

While the initial attraction may be superficial, I love the way these characters verbally tease and play with each other. Some of those moments are quite sharp and witty – a favorite exchange comes when Harriet suggests that he is overlooking that she has had a lover to which he replies that he has had several himself and can ‘produce quite good testimonials’. These moments have a charm and energy to them that lifts the piece and I enjoy any moments the pair are together.

Which helps make up a little for the rest of the book. As appealing as Lord Peter’s flirtations with Harriet are, I find the mystery plotline here to be rather underwhelming.

Part of the problem I have with this is that the killer’s identity is quite clear from early on in the novel. This is not because there is much reason for the investigation to settle on him but rather because there is simply no other suspect. Now, I’m the last person to complain about knowing the killer’s identity but if you are going to make their identity clear then you might as well commit to the inverted form properly as in Unnatural Death and either give us greater access to their thoughts or more directly establish a relationship between them and the sleuth.

A game of cat and mouse is only really fun if both parties are aware that they are playing. While there are a couple of moments where criminal and sleuth interact, there is not much back and forth or manipulation to be had here. Instead a lot of time is spent in what I consider filler material, with characters working to secretly obtain information. Those sequences are often quite memorable and entertaining such as a very clever seance sequence or the visit to a rather unorthodox Christian fellowship meeting but these passages move very slowly and little of what we learn will surprise.

In addition to learning the killer’s identity, the reader will also need to detect a motive and understand how they did it. The killer’s motive is, once again, relatively straightforward though I appreciate it does convincingly explain why the killer needs to act at that precise moment. A problem is that, as with proving the killer’s identity, the process by which we learn the killer’s motive feels strung out. Another is that surely almost everything that gets found would be inadmissable because of the way in which the information is gained (though perhaps the law on that point was very different in Britain in the early 30s).

Which brings me, finally, to the means by which it is managed. This is perhaps the book’s most creative idea, though it probably wouldn’t work in reality. While I think some parts are basically not guessable because they rely on prior knoweldge, the reader should be able to work out the significance of some key bits of information and start to piece those ideas together to at least give a general idea of how the poison must have been delivered. Those ideas are clever and exciting. I can certainly understand how it might work for others.

So overall then I found this to be rather a mixed bag (and that’s not even touching on the rather uncomfortable paragraphs where characters discuss Jewish bankers). The good bits of the story are both successful and interesting but I struggled with how bland the novel’s villain felt and had problems with the general pacing of the tale. Sayers was certainly capable of better and I think, were Harriet not introduced in this story, it would not be remembered anywhere near so fondly.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Curious whether the method used here would work? Several years ago The Guardian published a story discussing it, basically saying that while the science was credible in 1930s understanding, it doesn’t stand up today. Be warned that the article does give the solution away so read at your own risk.

Nick at the Grandest Game in the World considers this one of Sayers’ best, appreciating the witty writing and the inclusion of Miss Climpson who, yes, is ‘as splendid as ever’.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #5
Preceded by Lord Peter Views the Body
Followed by Strong Poison

The Blurb

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.

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.


My Thoughts

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.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Blurb

Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.

The Verdict

A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.


My Thoughts

The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.

While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.

My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.

The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.

Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.

Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.

I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.

One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.

So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.

On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.

Continue reading “Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers”

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published 1927
Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Preceded by Clouds of Witness
Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body

The Blurb

Though never quick-witted, Agatha Dawson had an iron constitution and a will to fight that never abated in her old age. Even after three operations failed to rid her of her cancer, she refused to give in. But as her body began to weaken, she accused lawyers, nurses, and doctors of trying to kill her and snatch her fortune. The town physician, an expert in cancer, gives her six months to live. Only three days later, she is dead.

Though the autopsy reveals nothing surprising, the doctor suspects that Agatha’s niece had some hand in the old woman’s death. When Lord Peter Wimsey, the dashing gentleman detective, looks into the matter, he finds that death stalks all those who might testify. How can he continue his investigation when every question marks another innocent for murder?

The Verdict

A marked improvement on its two predecessors, this novel makes Lord Peter a more relatable and human figure and features an interesting case.


My Thoughts

I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.

The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!

The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.

Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.

Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.

Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!

I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.

The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.

The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.

One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.

Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.

The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.

Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.

Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).

The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.

I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.

Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.

Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.

The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.

So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.

The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)

Further Reading

Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.

I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.

DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.

Nick @ The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book – always interesting!

Bev @ MyReadersBlock describes this as a marvellous vintage mystery that she does not tire of and comments on Sayers’ thoughtful exploration of ethics.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

CloudsofWitness
Clouds of Witness
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1926
Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Preceded by Whose Body?
Followed by Unnatural Death

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.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

WhoseBody
Whose Body?
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1923
Lord Peter Wimsey #1
Followed by Clouds of Witness

Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries hold a special place in my heart. My father was a huge fan and introduced the stories to me through the Carmichael and Petherbridge television adaptations in my early teens. They were probably the first GAD novels I read and while I didn’t appreciate that at the time, I do give them credit for inspiring me to try more.

At the point I am writing this however it has been well over a decade since I last read any of the novels. Given how much more widely read I have become in the detective genre since then I have been curious to see whether the series would still hold up and what I would make of them in the context of the other Golden Age fiction I have read.

The decision to kick things off with Whose Body? was an easy one, and not just because it is the very first of the Wimsey novels to be published. The real reason I started with this one is that it’s the only one that I had no memory of at all. I knew I had read it but I could only remember the question over the identity of the body and even then that was only in the loosest of details.

Of course once I began to read some of the details came back to me although, it must be said, I was surprised how few of the moments that felt familiar are plot points. Instead it was the little moments and asides in the novel that fleshed out the characters or struck me as amusing such as Bunter’s apologetic note to Lord Peter as he recounted how he served his brandy and cigars to a servant he was looking to get information from or the very affecting sequence in which we see Lord Peter experience flashbacks to his wartime experience.

Perhaps that reflects that the novel finds more interest in its character relationships and moments of levity than from its plotting which is relatively pedestrian. I can say that this is only the second best-plotted mysterious body left in someone else’s room story I have read in the past month (for a slightly more interesting use of this starting point see John Rhode’s The Paddington Mystery which was published two years later).

The plot is as follows: Lord Peter goes to inspect a body that has been found in a bathtub. The occupants of the home claim that the man’s identity is unknown to them and cannot account for his presence there. There is some suspicion that the body may belong to a prominent financier who went missing at about the same time the body showed up but when the man’s wife comes to identify the body she is sure it is not her husband.

Lord Peter becomes sure that the disappearance of the financier and the appearance of this corpse must be linked but the challenge for him, and the reader, is to figure out what was done and how. This is initially quite an intriguing question but I felt that mechanically the crime was quite simple while the cast of characters was small enough that, once you are sure there was some foul play, there were limited choices in who to suspect. In short, the crime itself is a bit of a flop and held limited interest for me.

Let’s turn instead then to the central, recurring characters and the obvious place to start is Lord Peter. Rereading this I was surprised by just how flippant and frustrating he can be and while I cannot be sure, I suspect that had I started by reading this book with no knowledge of the character or later adventures that I would never have finished this one, let alone gone on to read the series.

In later books it becomes clear that some of the personality he shows here is affectation, designed to throw people off and lead them to not view him as a threat. He is able to use this at times to get suspects to become overconfident, sometimes accidentally betraying themselves. It is a shtick and we certainly see him using his status and flighty persona to help him gain access in a difficult situation. For the most part though it feels much more a part of his personality as he shifts focus between discussing the case and the rare books he wants to buy and so it’s hard not to be frustrated with a character who seems to be treating murder as a game.

There are some moments here where I think we see the character emerge as interesting in his own right, not merely as an investigator, and I particularly appreciate his relationship with his manservant and old army batman Bunter. This, for me, is the heart of the early Wimsey novels and the standout sequence is that flashback to his time in the trenches, worrying that he is hearing the sounds of German tunneling beneath them.

That sequence really tells us so much about this pair and, when we learn that the stress of investigation may be in part responsible for it happening, we get a sense that Lord Peter is not just playing amateur sleuth for kicks but that he is willing to discomfort himself to pursue truth and justice. And in that moment Bunter becomes more than a stock servant with a skill at photography, he becomes a loyal carer and companion.

Sadly a lovely, rich character beat cannot overcome what feels like a very slight and rather routine mystery. Happily Lord Peter would have more interesting cases to come so if you’re new to the character I would suggest jumping in later in his adventures and returning to this at a later point.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An artist/photographer (Who) – Bunter has another professional occupation but he plays a significant role in this investigation.

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracks
Blood on the Tracks
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

The latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.