Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

CloudsofWitnessThere 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

WhoseBodyDorothy 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

bloodonthetracksThe 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.