Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review - Dorothy L. Sayers's Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Book 2) by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by: Harper Torch
Publication Date: 1926
Format: Paperback, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lord Peter is taking some time off in Corsica. He has been incommunicado for some time. Therefore it is quite a surprise to him on arriving in Paris to find his older brother's name splashed across the front of the papers. Gerald has been arrested for murder! For once Lord Peter can show Gerald that his "lurid hobby" might be of some use to the family. Rushing back to England Lord Peter is fighting against the passing of time and the fact that the inquest has already happened. The family was in Riddlesdale, Yorkshire, where Gerald had rented out a lodge for hunting. Peter and Gerald's younger sister Mary was playing hostess and her fiance, Denis Cathcart was the victim of foul play.

Yet the motive for Gerald killing Cathcart is absurdly flimsy. Supposedly Gerald found out about Cathcart being a cardsharp and told him to leave. Why this should result in murder makes no sense. But Gerald is being obdurate. He will not tell where he was or what he was doing that night. The fact that Mary is also lying soon becomes obvious. With his own family obfuscating the truth, Lord Peter takes many a wrong turn, some into very boggy situations, before he heroically saves the day.

Me and Lord Peter have come to a bit of an understanding with this latest volume. Firstly, I didn't at any time want to hurl it across the room and I would only grumble about the stupid title every hour or so, not constantly. Clouds of Witness is one of those awkwardly titled books, I keep wanting to say "Clouds of Whiteness"... because, clouds, generally speaking, are white. If the title actually was the line used in the book "cloud of witnesses" that might have worked better, but still, awkward and will forever be a title I mangle. Back to me not hating Peter so much. Sure, most of the problems of the previous volume still proliferated, but the crime itself was far more interesting. In fact, I might have said I actually liked this book if the end of it hadn't gotten so bogged down in Gerald's trial that I was lost in a morass of legalese of outmoded British laws. If there is only one thing British I could be said to hate it's outmoded British courtroom dramas, this being the second worse perpetrator, P.D. James being the queen with Death Comes to Pemberley.

What I don't get is Sayers's weird way of setting up the crime in this case. It is odd that we arrive with Peter after the crime is committed. Almost as if we where the police brought in after some time to get to the bottom of things. Usually when you have a traditional country house murder that is very familial you're there every step of the way. Here it's a very different and novel approach. I personally was left a little cold by it. By not being on the ground and in the trenches as it happened, I was unable to get a connection to these other characters. They were literally just people I read about not cared about, which is the difference between a so-so book and a great book. Also, if she was going to take this tack of following Peter, why does Sayers let Peter wander off and leave is in the dark? She contradicts herself by changing her narrative style, especially at the end when Peter dramatically enters the House of Lords and lays out the case. If she had stayed true to the earlier half of the book we could have followed Peter and then curtailed the drawn out court case... just saying...

My big complaint of the previous volume was that you can't really tell one character from another, them all having, basically, the same voice. She seemed to have gotten this criticism at the time as well because she laboriously tries to make the Yorkshire natives "real" with a weird dialect that doesn't really work. I mean, yes, it's kind of funny because it's Jeeves and Wooster meets Wuthering Heights... but it just came across as not quite right and just another thing slightly wrong that made the book less whole. I also think I understand why Lord Peter annoys me. The way he's written he talks like he's speaking gibberish, like a 1920s version of Doctor Who. Sure it can be funny, and far more enjoyable if you picture Matt Smith as Lord Peter, but in the end, it's tiring trying to pick out the important bits of information from his verbal diarrhea. A forty minute show is one thing, and 300 page novel is another. Once again I shall lament the need for editors and move onto another book... hopefully this one without an author who assumes the reader is fluent in French... a common misconception of writers at the time... damn you Sayers and Mitford!


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